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The Medical Minute: Play it safe with fireworks this Fourth of July

Nothing says summer like the Fourth of July, and nothing says “Happy Independence Day!” like fireworks.

Unfortunately, many Americans take it upon themselves to keep up the tradition rather than leave the aerial pyrotechnics to the professionals, and that choice leads to thousands of avoidable injuries every year.

“There are thousands of visits related to fireworks injuries over the holiday weekend, across the nation and we will unfortunately see patients in our Emergency Department, as well,” said Dr. Chris DeFlitch, Department of Emergency Medicine, Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) recently reported that in 2012 about 8,700 people were treated in emergency rooms across the country for injuries caused by fireworks, with 60 percent of those injuries occurring between June 22 and July 22.

The CPSC says use of firecrackers, homemade fireworks and aerial explosives—which are all illegal in Pennsylvania—are responsible for those injuries.

According to DeFlitch, many of those injures are avoidable with proper preparation.

“The biggest thing is common sense,” he said. “Don’t use alcohol while you're using fireworks at home, and don’t put yourself or your family at risk.”

If you use fireworks at home:

  • Consider using glow sticks instead of sparklers: “They’re much safer and give the same impression,” DeFlitch said. “And you’re going to avoid burn injuries.”
  • Have safety equipment around to put fires out and keep water nearby to extinguish fireworks after use.
  • Keep a safe distance from fireworks and wear sunglasses or protective eyewear when lighting them.
  • Water (or ideally, saline) should be on hand for potential injuries. It's a good time to look at your home first aid kit.
  • Make sure the fireworks you use are legal in your area.

Even with these tips in mind, DeFlitch encourages people to reconsider use of fireworks and aerial explosives at home.

“If you actually need to consider first aid supplies as part of your celebration, it might be a sign that you should leave it to the pros,” DeFlitch said.

Some of the fireworks injuries seen in the emergency room include burns, with many caused by sparklers. DeFlitch said this is because of how commonly they are used and the intense heat that they emit.

Hand injuries from holding exploding fireworks are also common, along with alcohol-related injuries. Eye injuries are occasionally seen when debris from fireworks lands in people's eyes.

Children and young adults make up the majority of the patients visiting the nation's hospitals for firework injuries. DeFlitch believes this is because children are more adventurous, while the young adults are often involved in alcohol-related injuries with fireworks.

If an injury occurs, get yourself or the injured party away from any danger.

  • Remove anything that continues to burn. If your clothes are on fire, get the fire out and clothes off.
  • Remove any debris that is still hot, if possible.
  • For an eye injury, flush the eye with saline or water. If you have contacts, take them out to prevent additional injury with  contact lens melting.
  • Apply pressure to stop any bleeding and seek medical attention.

Think you know a lot about home fireworks and aerial explosives? Take this quiz and learn more about how to enjoy this time-honored Fourth of July tradition while playing it safe.

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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