You've probably heard the old adage—the kitchen is the most dangerous room in your house. And while some doctors are reluctant to make such a bold claim, the number and sheer creativity of accidents that happen there mean the kitchen shouldn't be underestimated. "We spend a lot of time in the kitchen. There are sharp objects, there's heat. There are lots of potential ways to hurt yourself," says Peter Greenwald, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medicine.
The latest kitchen injury in the public consciousness is avocado hand, which refers to cuts of varying severity that result from attempting to remove the pit or peel of an avocado with a knife. One group of British surgeons is even calling for warning labels on the fatty fruits.
How often is avocado hand really happening? It's hard to say, but anecdotally doctors are seeing it more and more. No one tracks kitchen injuries versus other accidents, but Greenwald estimates that most emergency rooms see one or two pretty simple food-related injuries every few days. Those that require more serious intervention, like surgery, are less frequent, cropping up maybe six times a month, says Vishal D. Thanik, an assistant professor of plastic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center.
And most of those food-related injuries are cuts. "The classic is cutting off tip of your finger. That's standard," Thanik says. That can happen when fingers creep too close to the blade, when you're chopping things like onions or tomatoes, or with a terrifying vegetable-slicing device called a mandoline. Treating it can depend on how much you slice off—if it's just a few millimeters, Thanik says, it will probably heal itself, but the more of the finger that's hacked off, the more complex the treatment.
Sometimes people cut other parts of their hands, especially if they're working with round, slippery items (like pits from mangoes or avocados). Lately, in New York City, Thanik says he does see more injuries from avocados than from bagels (he'd have to check the data, but he suspects that injury trends can loosely follow food trends). These injuries are often cuts on the palm or side of the fingers, cuts which can straight-up sever tendons and nerves. Fixing those can require surgery and small, delicate sutures; healing can take months, Thanik says, and not everyone regains total feeling or range of motion in the end.
Injuries from immersion blenders can be particularly gnarly. "[The blade] is spinning, so instead of having one cut, often all the tissue gets cut up over huge area. It can be a real problem," Thanik says. Most of these injuries happen when people didn't realize the blender was still plugged in or they pull it out of food while it's still spinning. The cuts are less clean so they can be harder to stitch or repair; it's also not hard to sever tendons or nerves with an immersion blender. Again, treatment depends on the severity of the injury.
Then, of course, there are burns. They can happen in three different ways, Greenwald says: with splashes of hot oil, when boiling water tips over, or when people move things in and out of the oven. Naim Slim, a surgical resident who has worked as an emergency room doctor in the United Kingdom, recalls seeing a young child with burns on much of his torso and arm after he knocked over a pot of boiling pasta. Greenwald says he's seen whole hands burnt from people grabbing the handle of a cast-iron pan that they had just pulled out of the oven. "We react quickly, but sometimes not instantly enough," he says. Sometimes there are injuries from stovetop fires, but those are rare, he says.
Some PSAs: It can be hard to tell how deep a burn goes just by glancing at it, especially on hands, Greenwald says, so after running the burn under some cool water and keeping it covered, it's worth visiting your doctor or a burn center to get it checked out. Hand injuries tend to bleed a lot; when your hand isn't working right or parts of it feel numb, you should seek medical attention. Keep burns clean and dry, and don't put anything other than antibiotic cream on there. Be on the lookout for signs of infection, which include increasingly pain, fever, redness, or white discharge.
Sometimes things fall and injure feet. Sean McGann, an emergency physician at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, says a colleague saw a patient whose foot was cut to the bone after a meat cleaver fell from a countertop. Every year, Greenwald sees injuries that result from dropped frozen turkeys. "It's rare that a Thanksgiving goes by that I don't see a broken big toe."
Then there are the hospital visits that result from food ending up where it shouldn't. Big pieces of food, often meat, can get lodged in the esophagus, the tube in the throat that brings food from the mouth to the stomach. McGann says he sees lots of fish bones get lodged in there ("In Brooklyn, people eat a lot of fish," he says). Once he and his colleagues found the metal foil from a butter packet lodged in the airway of an elderly gentleman. Slim recalls a patient in her late 20s who had to be anesthetized so he could remove a whole cucumber from her rectum (he's also helped remove a croquet ball that had been lodged in a patient's large intestine).
Occasionally people visit the ER with food on their person as temporary treatment for an injury, McGann says, like using an onion or spice to stop a cut from bleeding (these DIY treatments, he assures me, do not work). And, of course, emergency rooms also get patients that have had food poisoning or allergic reactions to food.
No matter whether you're a professional cook or an amateur, kitchen accidents happen, but a lot of them can be prevented. Pay attention to what you're doing in the kitchen: "Accidents happen in a momentary lapse in attention. That's consistent for accidents, when you're distracted," Greenwald says. If you're using a knife, cut slowly; cut food on a cutting board, not holding it in your hand; unplug your immersion blender when you're done using it. And get a tetanus shot every 10 years to cover your ass. Er, your fingers. And for chrissakes, if you're pitting an avocado, use a spoon.