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The Medical Minute: Relax and let the experts handle your Independence Day fireworks

The annual tradition of pops, bangs and light shows that celebrate the July 4 holiday often result in an altogether different holiday tradition nobody wants.

In 2023, the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported an estimated 9,700 injuries involving fireworks in the U.S. Eight people died. Between 2008 and 2023, fireworks related injuries have risen overall, despite a steady decline since 2020 during the pandemic when public displays were canceled.

Dr. Chris DeFlitch, 26-year emergency medicine physician at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and chief medical information officer at Penn State Health, said local hospital emergency departments see the results Independence Day entertainment mishaps of all kinds. But burns continue to be the most common, along with eye and explosion injuries.

That doesn’t mean DeFlitch is against fireworks.

“I enjoy fireworks as much as the next person,” he said. To DeFlitch, the key safety tip for Independence Day is to leave fireworks to the experts.

“The ideal situation is to not shoot them off yourself,” he said.

In most cases they’re trained to understand all the safety concerns. Also, a number of communities have enacted burn bans during the recent dry weather to prevent wild fires. Those temporary constraints include fireworks.

Fireworks can be triggers

Also, leaving the explosive patriotic displays to the experts reduces the possibilities of disturbing people for whom fireworks are especially harmful since they’re advertised and usually not in the center of residential neighborhoods. The holiday’s loud, unexpected noises can be particular harmful to people living with post-traumatic stress disorder – a group that includes combat veterans.

“The impact to those who have served and to those experiencing traumatic experiences is significant,” DeFlitch said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs makes five recommendations for veterans for whom July 4 fireworks are problematic:

  • Confront safe triggers you’ve wanted to avoid gradually.
  • Remind yourself where you are and what is happening around you.
  • Safely lowering your body temperature can help. Veterans can take a cold shower, or use an ice pack, ice cubes, frozen vegetables packs or splash cold water.
  • Planning self-care can boost your mood, which can offset the overall impact of stress triggers.
  • Prioritize your mental health and seek treatment. To schedule an appointment with Hines VA Trauma Services, call 708-202-4668.

“It’s very real,” DeFlitch said. “You don’t know how it’s affecting other people in your neighborhood.”

Don’t forget your four-legged patriots

The displays also can be hard on pets. For animals with sensitivity to loud noises and flashes, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals recommends:

  • Turn on soft music and consider moving your pet into an interior room with no windows.
  • Try an anxiety vest, a garment that provides compression to an animal’s midsection and can have a calming effect. If you don’t have one, try a T-shirt with a tight fit.
  • Talk with your vet about anxiety medication.
  • Don’t forget your cats. They’re not frightened as often as dogs, but they tend to hide. Keep them indoors and be sure to check on them.

“Of my nine pets, the three dogs are most affected, but the four cats and two rabbits are not fond of those blasts and bangs either,” DeFlitch said.

Safety tips for going it alone

If you’re still set on shooting off your own fireworks, DeFlitch has a few recommendations for making it as safe as possible.

  • Don’t drink.
  • 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.
  • Keep a bucket of water on hand for potential injuries. It’s also a good time to look at your home first aid kit.
  • Make sure the fireworks you use are legal in your area.

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

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