Fourth of July is a cause for boisterous celebration. Friends and family gather to commemorate the anniversary of our independence and the founding of the United States of America in 1776. Fireworks displays are the traditional climax of the holiday, calling to mind “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air” that Francis Scott Key wrote of when he witnessed the Stars and Stripes enduring through battle.
As inspiring as this history is, in the present day parents would be wise to keep their families far from the rocket’s red glare — even in the form of fireworks. More than 200 people seek medical attention for fireworks injuries each year. These can be very serious, causing second- and third-degree burns, blindness, scarring, amputations and even death. The face and hands are the most common sites of injury, as people hold fireworks or get too close examining them.
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Children and young adults are most at risk. Often, injured children were not “playing” with fireworks unsupervised at the time of injury, but instead were in the care of adults who underestimated the risks of the explosives. Sparklers, firecrackers/poppers and bottle rockets are the most common types of fireworks causing injury.
Parents may think of these as innocuous and of little threat to children. Yet it is important to recognize that all fireworks are extremely hot (enough to cause third-degree burns), rely on the ignition of an explosion to work, and create debris that at burning temperatures can land in eyes and on skin.
The best way to keep safe on July 4th—and the days before or after—is to watch the sky a good distance from where a professional display has been set, such as those sponsored by a town or city. If your child is sensitive to the loud sounds, consider earplugs, a noise canceling headset or allowing him or her to watch from indoors.
Before night falls, prepare young children for what they will see and hear. While most of us delight in the surprise of the bright colors and the delayed “boom, boom, kaboom,” some children will become anxious or cry. It is better to comfort such children and allow them to retreat — this year — so that they may enjoy the holiday more in the future.
To best protect yourself and your family, avoid setting off your own fireworks. We only get two eyes and five fingers on each hand. It is better not to burn or scar them.
Despite the risks, some people will choose to buy fireworks. Never use homemade fireworks, which can have unpredictable results. Fireworks intended for professional displays are extremely powerful and not meant for individuals. Do not ignite them indoors or near other people and pets. Do use protective eye gear. Young children and less mature or high-risk-taking adolescents should not be allowed to light fireworks. Always keep a safe distance from others using fireworks, as the debris can be quite hot.
Of course, fireworks are neither the only excitement nor the only risk on this summer holiday. All too often, we are faced with another explosive injury as celebrants fire pistols into the air. The trigger behind this injury is understood: Some gun owners seek to mark the day with something special. Yet, the bullets often fall upon unsuspecting nearby victims, including children. Injuries may be fatal or cause brain damage, paralysis, infection and chronic pain.
Sometimes the victim was never seen by the shooter, as the bullet passed through a wall, or in a direction unforeseen. Guns should not be fired into the air on July 4th – or any other day – as what goes up must come down, and may lodge in someone’s bone, brain or other tissue.
Keeping safe this July means taking normal precautions as well, especially when lots of people are celebrating. If you can, avoid the roads — escaping traffic and the risk of drunk drivers. Even if you are not driving, keep alcohol to a minimum to allow for careful supervision of children. When at the pool or beach, always designate an adult to provide focused supervision of the children. The adults can take shifts but should not let their attention wander to cellphones and other distractions.
Fourth of July is a national birthday party — a day of barbecues and beaches, time to remember our history and look forward to the future. Enjoying the holiday means keeping our kids safe — and avoiding unnecessary risk — every year. May this year’s Fourth your safest yet.
Judy Schaechter, M.D., is the chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Health System. For more information, visit UHealthSystem.com/patients/pediatrics.