Avoiding Illness After A Hurricane

avoiding illness after hurricane
Emma Yasinski
Emma Yasinski Staff Writer
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Sophie Saint Thomas has been riding out hurricanes in the U.S. Virgin Islands since she was a baby. She swears she remembers the high winds of Hurricane Hugo, which hit when she was less than two years old in1989. After Hurricane Marilyn hit in 2005, she and her family lived without electricity and reliably clean drinking water for months. Now an adult, Saint Thomas has helped friends and family through numerous storms and worked with local organizations such as the Family Planning Center of St. Thomas/St. John’s after storms.

After storms, she says “the biggest problem is lack of access to medication.” People run out of medicines like insulin or struggle to store it properly without electricity. And in some places, the “lack of access to healthcare can go from hard to impossible,” she adds.

When we think of the dangers of a storm, we usually consider being swept away by flood waters, powerful winds damaging our homes, and temporary losses of electricity. However, once the storm passes, it leaves behind conditions that can raise your risk for a variety of illnesses and infections. Here’s what experts say you need to watch out for in the aftermath to avoid serious injuries or illness after a hurricane.

Illness After a Hurricane From Sitting Bodies of Water

In the weeks after hurricane Ian hit the west coast of Florida, at the end of September 2022,  the Florida Department of Health reported 68 cases of people being infected with a flesh-eating bacteria, Vibrio vulnificus, nearly half of those cases were from the Lee County, where the storm hit hardest.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warns of a bacterial infection, leptospirosis, that can damage your kidneys and liver and make it difficult to breathe. The bacteria can live in bodies of water or even soil that contains animal urine or feces. Floods leave people particularly susceptible because the waters spread the bacteria.

Plus, many of the risks related to storm surge and sitting water hover above, rather than lurk beneath, the surface. Standing water sources “may become breeding grounds for mosquitoes” says Nancy Mitchell, RN. 

Dengue fever outbreaks are common after hurricanes because [mosquitos]tend to mass breed in standing water from old tanks and stagnant potholes,” for example. Saint Thomas confirms she too has seen people experience Dengue fever after storms.

What You Can Do:

  • Avoid standing bodies of water.
  • If you must wade out, wear protective rubber boots.
  • Cover cuts or open wounds.
  • Boil any water before drinking it.
  • Put a few drops of dish soap in standing water to kill insect larvae.
  • Eliminate standing water on your own property.

Infected Injuries

When you’re cleaning up debris or surveying any local damage, you may be susceptible to infections, such as tetanus, via cuts and scrapes, which can cause serious illness after a hurricane. To prevent the cuts to start with, make sure you wear protective clothing such as rubber boots and gloves when cleaning, and seek a tetanus shot if there’s a chance you might have been exposed. 

“Wounds from hurricanes can involve contaminated metals, wood, and glass,” says Mitchell. “If left untreated, these injuries could develop into severe gangrenous infections.”

Generator Injuries

Another source of injuries after a storm arises due to the use of a generator. Without power, impacted households resort to alternative sources of energy, which themselves can be dangerous. 

“I had a childhood friend who was burned with third-degree burns after her gas generator exploded while trying to light it, as there was no electricity,” says Saint Thomas. 

Generators are a crucial source of energy when outages are widespread but using them incorrectly can be risky.

In addition to explosions, the devices can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. 

“Each hurricane season, there are deaths reported from carbon monoxide poisoning related to power outages,” says Kelly Johnson-Arbor, MD, medical toxicologist and Co-Medical Director of the National Capital Poison Center. Carbon monoxide can cause nausea and vomiting and it can be fatal.

To avoid carbon monoxide poisoning when using a generator:

  • Have battery-powered carbon monoxide detectors within 10 feet of any sleeping areas.
  • Do not operate generators in enclosed areas, even garages.
  • Seek guidance from Poison Control at poison.org or by calling 1-800-222-1222 if you suspect poisoning

Heat and Sun

Hurricane season runs from June 1 to November 30 in the Atlantic, meaning storms tend to hit when heat and sunlight are especially powerful. If the power goes out and you don’t have reliable air conditioning, you’re at risk for heat exhaustion. 

Certain medications can also make you more susceptible to heat stroke or burns and rashes from the sun.

To avoid heat exhaustion or burns:

  • Make sure you have your medicines safely stored.
  • Stay out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day.
  • Cover your skin and wear a hat to shade your face.
  • Before undertaking physical activity or cleanup, ensure you have plenty of clean water to maintain hydration.

Mental Health

It’s not just infections and injuries that can cause illness after a hurricane, living through a natural disaster takes a serious toll on your mental health. You may want to reach out to a therapist or other mental health professional once you’re safe to manage any stress, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or grief you’re experiencing.

DISCLAIMER: MedShadow provides information and resources related to medications, their effects, and potential side effects. However, it is important to note that we are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The content on our site is intended for educational and informational purposes only. Individuals dealing with medical conditions or symptoms should seek guidance from a licensed healthcare professional, such as a physician or pharmacist, who can provide personalized medical advice tailored to their specific circumstances.

While we strive to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information presented on MedShadow, we cannot guarantee its completeness or suitability for any particular individual's medical needs. Therefore, we strongly encourage users to consult with qualified healthcare professionals regarding any health-related concerns or decisions. By accessing and using MedShadow, you acknowledge and agree that the information provided on the site is not a substitute for professional medical advice and that you should always consult with a qualified healthcare provider for any medical concerns.

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