It was a dreary cold, December day and I was on call. It had been slow, but that was about to change. An 82-year-old man was admitted to my service with diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramps. He had never had any gastrointestinal problems and was on no medications. The only pertinent history was that his grandson was sick with a similar illness, and his daughter had been sick three days earlier.
Moments later, I received a second call for a preop clearance on a man who had been electrocuted while decorating his house for the holidays. He had fallen and broken his hip. Before I put the phone down the pager went off again—a patient admitted with a glucose level of 820. The light bulb over my head went off: We had entered the Dangerous Season.
What is this season that bodes well for no one? This poorly understood clinical risk factor begins during Halloween and lasts through Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, and—in some areas of the country—until Mardi Gras. And now they’re upon us again: the holidays. Our bodies shudder, increasingly deprived of sunlight and oversupplied with calories, as we begin our festive mode.
All Hallow’s Eve: The Dangerous Season starts with Halloween, a pagan ritual. What child would not want to stay up after dark, run around in a mask scaring people, and eat too much candy to commemorate the leprous dead?
Halloween is the most medical of holidays. Many costumes and traditions are related to medicine: Frankenstein’s monster was assembled from body parts obtained by anatomic grave robbers. Mummies are well-preserved corpses, and mummy powder was a traditional remedy for skin ailments for centuries. Vampires may have nutritional deficiencies, and werewolves porphyria. Spider web is a traditional therapy used cutaneously as a styptic and internally for asthma.
For diabetics—especially diabetic children—Halloween is a painful time. In addition, there’s no shortage of pumpkin seed-induced diverticulitis, not to mention the unfortunate periodic occurrence of poisoned candy. According to the American College of Emergency Physicians there’s also a serious increase in risk of injury from collisions with motor vehicles, eye injuries from sharp objects, and burns from flammable costumes.
Other Halloween problems include minor inconveniences such as lost fillings secondary to nougat, falls from trees while removing toilet paper, and the occasional rotten egg to the posterior occiput. In our household there appears to be a higher than usual incidence of emesis and general abdominal pain.
Turkey Day: Next comes Thanksgiving, a seemingly benign day of turkey consumption and family cheer. The greatest danger of this holiday remains Salmonella, though Campylobacter jejuni lurks somewhere nearby. Undercooked turkey is a potent source of this infection, as are uncooked eggs in cookie dough.
The amount of time to properly thaw and cook a whole turkey, for example, is much longer than the standard-size poultry pieces and cuts of meat served year-round. When thawed correctly in the refrigerator or at a temperature of no more than 40 degrees F, a 20-pound turkey requires two to three days to thaw completely. Thawing the turkey completely before cooking is important. Otherwise, the outside of the turkey will be done before the inside.
To check a turkey for doneness, insert a food thermometer into the inner thigh area near the breast of the turkey (but not touching bone). The turkey is done when the temperature reaches 180 degrees F. If the turkey is stuffed, the temperature of the stuffing should be 165 degrees F. It is not unusual for whole families to fall ill after eating the Thanksgiving feast. Salmonella may be found in turkey, gravy, stuffing, pies, and other foods served at the Thanksgiving dinner.