The holidays are an opportunity to give thanks and celebrate life. They also can be a time of danger.

Overindulgence of alcohol or drugs is an increased health threat during the holidays, experts at Keck Medicine of USC say, as is accidental consumption of harmful substances. Children may be most vulnerable. During the holiday season, emergency rooms see many young patients who have accidentally ingested medications from visiting older relatives or family friends.

Michael Levine, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC who specializes in toxicology, treats patients suffering from drug and alcohol overdoses, including children who unknowingly consume dangerous chemicals.

“Around Thanksgiving, we start seeing an increase in accidental ingestions,” said Levine, who works at Los Angeles County+USC Medical Center as well as USC Verdugo Hills Hospital and Keck Hospital of USC.

Prior to joining Keck Medicine, Levine completed his toxicology fellowship at the Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix and residency at the Brigham and Women’s/Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. With the recent hiring of two new toxicology physicians, the LAC+USC Department of Emergency Medicine’s Section of Medical Toxicology has expanded to other health care facilities, including Huntington Hospital in Pasadena.

Prior to the holidays, medical professionals at these sites had already seen an increase in prescription drug overdoses. Levine attributes the trend to an increased number of prescriptions for powerful pain medications.

“We’ve seen an increase in prescription opiate drug overdoses on par with the national trend,” he said. “There has been a push over the last couple of years to be aggressively treating pain, and the volume of prescriptions for opiates has increased. If people are in pain, they want medicine to treat it.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called the rise of prescription painkiller overdoses an epidemic. The amount of painkillers prescribed and sold in the United States has nearly quadrupled since 1999, according to the agency.

Meanwhile, overdoses from illegal drugs have been rising. Heroin overdoses quadrupled this decade, according to CDC data. Doctors like Levine who work in local emergency rooms say the number of accidental overdoses could be drastically reduced by increased awareness. During the holidays, it’s particularly important to make sure all medication is safely stored out of the reach of children.

“Visiting grandparents who are not used to having young children around should not be leaving medication on the night stand,” Levine said. He also noted that careful packing and opening of gifts is crucial to ensure there are no choking hazards for children.

Those struggling with addiction also may feel especially vulnerable during the holidays, increasing the risk of alcohol and drug abuse.

“Around the holidays, we see an increase in ingestion overdoses and suicide rates,” Levine said.

The emergency physicians and nurses at Keck Medicine of USC facilities are well equipped to handle the influx of patients who have overdosed.

“As a general rule, if someone makes it to the hospital alive, their odds of survival are very high,” Levine said. “The key is very good, supportive care.”

— Douglas Morino