The Most Common Causes of Death in the Home (and How to Prevent Them)



Your house is your haven and your shelter. It’s also a pretty common place to die in an unpredictable—and usually preventable—accident.

Our home is typically a refuge, a place where we expect to feel safe; that’s one reason why a common reaction to trauma is the simple desire to go home, where we can presumably feel safe. It’s also why we put a lot of effort, time, and money into things like security systems. We want to ensure that outside threats stop at our front door.

But the unfortunate fact is that, a lot of times, the threats are coming from inside the house. There are generally more than 120,000 preventable injuries and deaths in homes each year, and most of them are caused by things you probably don’t think of as particularly dangerous.

Poisoning

You might think you’re safe from being poisoned if you’re sitting in your own home minding your own business, but poisoning is actually one of the most common ways to die in the house. More than 80,000 people were poisoned to death in their homes in 2021, for example, representing about 65% of all the at-home fatalities that year. There were more than two million calls to poison control centers that year, too, and more than three-fourths of those poisonings were accidents.

How does this happen? Well, a lot of things in your house can poison you if you use them incorrectly or consume them for some reason. Cleaning products are pretty toxic if accidentally ingested, and overdoses on common medications like acetaminophen (aka Tylenol) or stronger pain medications are usually classified as poisoning, which explains a lot. Even houseplants, which just sort of sit there minding their own business, were responsible for more than 20,000 poisoning calls, many involving children.

You can protect yourself and your kids from accidental poisonings by following some simple best practices:

  • Keep medicines in a specific place, preferably out of the reach of a child. Don’t store medications where they can be mistaken for anything else (like candy), and always read the labels to know the maximum dosage.

  • Similarly, keep cleaning products away from food and preferably in a locked cabinet or a location inaccessible to children.

  • Never use household cleaners for any other purpose (e.g., cleaning dishes or washing food), and never use containers for both food and cleaning products.

  • Always wash your hands after handling cleaning products, plants, or medications.

Falls

Coming up next on the Ways to Die in Your House list are falls, making up 23% of all accidental deaths in the house (nearly 30,000 cases in 2021 alone). In fact, accidental deaths from falls are getting markedly worse—the number of deaths from falls in the house has risen about 25% over the last few years. Most falls involve your deadliest enemy within a home: the stairs. And, yes, most fall deaths involve folks older than 75, which makes sense—but being young doesn’t make you immune, and plenty of younger people fall down slippery stairs all the time, risking injury and death.

There are some basic things you can do to lower your risk of falling and hurting yourself:

  • Pay attention. Simply by watching your feet and being conscious of where you’re stepping, you can reduce your risk of falling—especially when walking up or down stairs. Traversing stairs is not the time to multitask or check your phone.

  • Light the way. Keeping areas well-lit can help you see obstacles before you trip over them, and using nightlights and marking light switches with glow-in-the-dark decals (or using illuminated wall plates) can help you stay balanced and oriented as you walk.

  • Add safety. All stairs should have a railing—and you should always use the railing when walking up and down stairs. And if there are slippery areas in your house (especially on stairs), add non-slip tape or carpeting to reduce the risk.

  • Bathrooms can be risky places for falls because of water pooling on tiled floors. Adding bars to shower walls can help prevent slipping injuries while bathing, and adding a rug with a non-slip backing can help reduce this risk.

  • When doing work around the house, always use a ladder to reach things, and make sure the ladder has the proper load rating for what it will be supporting.

  • When using a ladder, always ensure it’s level and fully open so the supports have locked into place. Never stand on the very top of a ladder, and never lean or stretch to reach something when on a ladder.

Fire

Fire and smoke actually account for only about 2% of all accidental deaths in the house. Which is remarkable, because there are so many ways a deadly fire can start: a failure to clean the lint out of your dryer; letting your smoke detector batteries fail; using frayed or damaged extension cords; or even candles, which are responsible for 3% of all those fire deaths.

Fire is typically a pretty top-of-mind threat, which may help explain its low fatality in the home. Most people know to keep their smoke detectors powered up, and know to get the heck out as fast as possible if a fire breaks out. But there’s more you can do to prevent fire in your home.

  • Always use candle holders, and place candles in areas where they are unlikely to be knocked over—and are far away from combustible materials. And always extinguish candles when you leave a room. Better yet, consider switching to battery-powered candles.

  • Never leave an open flame—like a burner on your stove—unattended.

  • Always have a working fire extinguisher in the kitchen, or near any fireplaces in the home.

  • Immediately replace any extension cords that are visibly frayed, and contact an electrician if your lights flicker or if any switches or outlets feel hot to the touch or spark when something is plugged in.

Choking and mechanical suffocation

About 4,500 people die in their homes from either choking or “mechanical suffocation,” which, according to the National Safety Council, means “deaths from hanging and strangulation, and suffocation in enclosed or confined spaces; cave-ins; or by bed clothes, plastic bags, or similar materials.”

While it’s unlikely your pajamas will strangle you in your sleep, you can prevent suffocation with some common-sense steps:

  • Tie up dangling strings like window blind cords.

  • Never go to sleep with plastic bags—like dry-cleaning bags—on the bed.

  • Be conscious of your food when eating, and be sure to chew thoroughly and not rush. Never run or walk while eating—always eat while sitting.

  • Learn how to perform choking first aid, including the Heimlich Maneuver. Also learn how to perform the Self-Heimlich on yourself in case you start to choke while alone.

Drowning

About 1,300 people drowned in their homes in 2021—many of them children, and many involving innocuous bodies of water like bathtubs, buckets, toilets, or hot tubs. It only takes an inch or two of water to drown a person, after all, especially if combined with another type of accident that leaves you momentarily unconscious.

To prevent accidental drowning in the home, you should

  • Never leave small children unattended in water.

  • Invest in a pool fence if you have small children in the house.

  • Never consume alcohol or other substances while immersed in water (i.e., a hot tub or hot bath).

  • Never leave containers of water open and full. Dump out tubs, buckets, and other receptacles when not in use, and keep toilet lids down.

Temperatures

One of the main jobs assigned to your house is protecting you from the elements, including extreme temperatures. Some houses do a better job of this than others, of course, depending on their insulation, weather seals, and climate control capabilities, but most houses are able to shield you from the worst extremes.

But about 1,000 people die in their homes from extreme temperatures—an elderly couple in South Carolina, for example, were found dead in a home with an internal temperature of 120 degrees after an apparent malfunction in their heating system. And extreme cold combined with poverty or malfunctioning heaters can be just as deadly.

To defend yourself against freezing or baking in your own home, there are a few steps you can take:

  • Inspect. Have your heating and cooling systems inspected before each change of season. Many local utilities will schedule a check-up for your furnace, boiler, or air-conditioning systems.

  • Pay attention. Check weather reports and sign up for alerts from your local government. If extreme heat or cold is predicted, be aware and make sure your systems are working. If your heat or AC isn’t functioning, consider staying with friends or family until the temperatures normalize or you can have repairs made.

  • Know symptoms. Be familiar with the symptoms of heat-related illnesses and hypothermia. At the first sign of any of these symptoms, call for assistance or find a place where you can warm up or cool down.

Gunshots

You might think, this is America, of course people die in their homes from gunshots all the time. And yet, not so much. Just 400 accidental gunshot deaths in the home occurred in 2021, for example. While this is 400 too many, it’s still a tiny number compared to the other dangers lurking in your domicile. Most people who have a gun in the house practice solid gun safety practices, keeping the weapon unloaded and secured when not in use. Many of these deaths involve children who gain access to the firearm and play with them—including very young children who may not fully understand what they’re playing with. Even if you don’t have children of your own, you should keep your guns locked away securely so that no one without training and experience can gain access to them.

Preventing accidental gunshot wounds in the home involves some basic safety practices that most gun owners know well:

  • Practice safe gun storage with a secure, lockable gun safe, and always keep your guns there when not in use.

  • Always assume a gun is loaded.

  • Never play with a gun or use it for any purpose other than what it was designed to do.

Bleach

Cleaning products are dangerous, especially if mixed improperly. Too many people assume that if a store will sell you a bunch of products they must be safe to use together, and the result is nearly 100,000 calls to poison control centers involving cleaning substances in the house.

But you don’t have to ingest cleaning products to die from them. One of the most common mistakes folks make is mixing bleach with stuff that triggers a deadly reaction—like vinegar. You might think that combining bleach and vinegar would result in a Super Cleaner that will leave your house spotless. Instead, you get chlorine gas. And a trip to the ER, if you’re lucky. To prevent these sorts of accidents, never mix cleaning products unless the labels explicitly instruct you to do so.

DIY repairs

Fixing up your house to make it more comfortable or attractive is a time-honored way to spend time in your home. But it’s also a time-honored way to get yourself dead. Home remodeling and renovation projects involve tools of all kinds, which are essentially murder weapons in disguise—especially power tools, which should never be handled unless you’re familiar with their use and limitations. They also involve the very structure of your home, which can be compromised in a wide variety of deadly ways, from accidentally hitting live electrical wiring to removing load-bearing elements that can result in serious injuries.

Even if you’re relatively experienced and practice good basic safety, there are still a lot of ways to hurt yourself when DIYing in your home, as we noted here at Lifehacker:

  • Microwaves hold a considerable—and quite deadly—electrical charge for a very long time after being unplugged

  • Garage door springs store an incredible amount of energy, and trying to replace one without the proper tools and training is very dangerous

  • Building a death trap like a deck that will eventually collapse is pretty easy if you don’t know anything about engineering—never assume that just because something you built seems solid it can actually hold weight.

In the end, the way to stay safe when doing projects around the house is to never assume something is safe—always double-check power, gas, and structure before you swing that hammer or fire up that saw.





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