Caution: Slippery Falls Ahead

Keeping on your toes can be no easy fete, especially come winter. Find out what can trip you up, leading to sudden falls and unwanted injuries.

6 min read

Do you ever have one of those days where everything is fine until suddenly -- wipe out -- you slip and fall?

Meri-K Appy, the president of the Home Safety Council had a day like that. "I will confess to you that I had a fall and I did everything wrong," she says, of a spill she took about six months ago at an airport when she was rushing to catch a shuttle bus to her hotel. "It was a tile floor and a little wet and I just did an amazing swan dive in front of about 100 people." The irony of the situation -- that she is the president of an organization that advocates and educates people about preventative accidents, with falling at the top of the list -- was not lost on Appy. Luckily, she suffered no serious injuries. To Appy, however, that isn't the point. She could have been terribly hurt.

"Very often in our culture people use falls for a laugh," says Appy, recalling the comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Dick Van Dyke, and Chevy Chase. The problem is that there are very real and severe consequences that could result from a fall. People often feel embarrassed after they take a tumble, and instead of checking to see whether or not they've been hurt, people might find themselves looking around to see if there were any witnesses. Appy tells WebMD that we mustn't lose sight of the more serious consequences of falls -- most notably, a head trauma, hip fracture or even death. In fact, there are almost 6,000 deaths annually from falls, and 5,000 are among adults 65 and older.

In fact, falls are the No. 1 cause of home-injury-related deaths. Appy tells WebMD that on average each year there are nearly 20,000 deaths and more than 21 million medical visits because of preventable home injuries such as falls, fires, choking, and drowning. By a large margin falls are No. 1. Given the endless traps around most houses and in the great outdoors -- think old carpets and rugs that don't stay put, uneven steps without banisters, icy roads, and driveways, etc. -- it's a wonder any of us make it through the day without falling. Luckily, we've got some expert tips for how you can prevent trips and falls this season.

It's important that you keep an eye on your sight. Get an eye exam if you feel like you're what Perry Binder, MD, calls "visually clumsy." Binder, who is an opthalmologist from the Gordon Binder Weiss Vision Institute in San Diego, recommends annual eye exams. Weather changes can also affect your ability to see. "Gray days without bright sunlight means less contrast, so people can't see as well under such circumstances," Binder tells WebMD. Because the sun sets earlier in the winter we lose light earlier. That's why adding lighting to dark passageways and stairwells is even more important during the winter months.

Believe it or not, Appy says the only activity proven effective in curbing your risk of falling is Tai Chi. Appy says it's known for helping us build strength and balance. There are numerous activities which can help you achieve these goals, and finding one that you enjoy is a surefire way to decrease your risk of falling.

Snow and ice can create a glare, Binder says, making it more difficult to see. In addition, snow covers cracks and holes so Binder says people need to take more "visual care" to avoid tripping over foreign objects. Shoveling properly to create safe walkways and using ice or wood chips is a no-brainer to decrease your chances of a fall outside.

Medications can sometimes cause side effects, namely dizziness, which may increase your chances of falling. "Once a year, have a medical professional -- your doctor or pharmacist --review all of your medications, including over-the-counter and prescription drugs, because it's been documented that taking four or more medications can contribute to a fall," Appy says. Keep in mind that if this is a problem for you, you may be able to have your doctor modify your doses, reducing drug use.

Appy also recommends that you track your medications, especially if you find it difficult to remember when and if you've taken your medications yet. This will decrease the likelihood that you will double up on your dose by mistake, causing unwanted side effects.

Having good footwear is important. Appy recommends that you wear thin rubber-soled shoes so you can still feel the ground beneath your feet. Shoes that aren't the best choices when it comes to keeping grounded are those with really thick soles or leather-soled shoes that are slippery.

Taking extra precautions to prevent falls during the winter months is especially important come holiday time. For starters, people frequently bring their dusty ladders out of their basements to hang ornaments and decorations or to complete household projects before, say, a holiday party they're hosting. If you're going to be decorating on a ladder, keep in mind the significant number of emergency room visits associated with ladders each year. Take appropriate precautions, especially in terms of how you position the ladder. You also want to avoid leaning over too far, which can offset your balance.

Often entrance halls and stairwells can be magnets for clutter throughout the year, but even more so during the holidays. Try to keep them clear, especially when you have guests over.

Pay attention when you're walking and try to slow down, especially when visibility is poor or when there are a lot of potential hazards. Keep your hands free and be aware of the surface of the floors. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," says Appy, who offered the following tips for home modifications, which can help to insure your safety. These tips are especially helpful for parents.
  • Know when to throw away a throw rug. Throw rugs can contribute to your risk of falling, especially rugs that aren't flat or adhered to the floor. Either remove throw rugs or tape them down with double-sided tape so that your toes don't get stuck under them, causing a nasty spill.
  • Baby gates. If you have small children, an age group prone to falls, you should utilize baby gates. The Home Safety Council recommends that you use baby gates that attach to the walls on both the top and bottom of your stairwell.
  • Get window locks. Unfortunately, little kids fall out of windows sometimes, especially during warmer weather. Get window guards that you can quickly remove, in case of a fire.
  • Make sure your kids have a soft place to fall in playgrounds. Appy says you want to have a soft surface under play areas that is at least 9-12 inches deep (wood mulch or pea gravel). You want the soft surfaces to extend at least 6 feet in all directions so the fall zone is covered.
  • Bathrooms. In the bathroom, another area where people are prone to falls, make sure you wipe down slippery surfaces. Use bathmats and use a mat inside the shower as well. If you don't have grab bars in your shower or tub, consider an installation. The Home Safety Counsel recommends that you get bars installed into the walls, which can hold human weight. People often think they only need grab bars when they age. "Anyone who has fallen in the shower knows it can happen at any age. Even young kids can fall," says Appy. "Although the consequences can be more severe for older individuals."

It can be difficult to raise the issue of falls with a loved one -- such as an older parent, relative or friend -- given the stigma and embarrassment associated with falling. For older adults, installing grab bars and other safety devices may seem unnecessary. If you're worried about bringing up the issue with a loved one, try leading by example. Install these devices first in your own home. "Then you can tell your mom it's her turn. That way it's less stigmatizing," Appy says.