After the Hell and High Water: You have to engage in medical self-defense

Harvey’s gone, Irma’s coming, others will follow. But after the hell and high water, like night follows day, comes disease: a veritable one-two punch. And so it’s every bit as important to protect yourself during those long days as it was during the furious days of the storm.

You may be dealing with, for example, “Infectious diseases [that] could sweep across Texas as Harvey floods Houston … turning entire neighborhoods into contaminated and potentially toxic rivers … [and] the city into a sprawling, pathogen-infested swamp.” Or, because the pathogen count in general is so high there’s “the potential for sewer plant malfunction or sewer plant continuing to discharge untreated or partially treated waste.”

So we’re reprinting a terrific article from Medscape Infectious Diseases that lays out the A B C’s of medical self-defense in the aftermath of a natural disaster. But first, to get a better feel for how a hurricane can turn “entire neighborhoods into contaminated and potentially toxic rivers,” – and thus the need to protect yourself – check out this revealing Times video that winds you through a flooded Houston neighborhood (be sure to click on “Watch in Times Video”).

 

 

From Medscape:

                                             What patients Should Know and Do

As people are able to return to their homes, here’s what they can do to help protect their health, officials say.

Threats in the Water and Air

A woman trudges through the water in Texas.

Floodwaters carry germs, so anything that’s come in contact with those waters could harm your health, according to the CDC.

Exposure to bacteria and germs in floodwaters can cause diarrhea, wound infections, and conditions such as trench foot, the CDC says. Traveling through standing water can make you more likely to be exposed to hazardous chemicals. Floodwater, too, is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which can transmit disease. Use insect repellent.

Your tap water may not be safe, either. Turn to local officials or the news to see if you can drink tap water or use it for washing. If you need an alternate source:

  • Use bottled water if you can.
  • If you have access to a stove, bring water to a rolling boil for one minute. Or, you can add 1/8 teaspoon of new, unscented liquid bleach to a gallon of water and stir. Let the water sit for a half-hour before drinking it.
  • Use water-purifying tablets, following the maker’s directions carefully

Clothes that are exposed to floodwaters must be thoroughly cleaned. Some clothing may have to be thrown away, especially if exposed to hazardous chemicals, sewage, or fiberglass insulation.

Before using your washing machine, make sure the water supply is safe and sewer systems are running. Run the machine for a cycle with no clothes but with detergent and bleach to sanitize it. Wash clothes on the hottest setting recommended, and use bleach if fading is not an issue. Use a pine-oil disinfectant instead of bleach on colored clothing.

Threats in Food

When possible, take inventory of your food.

  • If power is out, keep the freezer and refrigerator doors closed as much as possible; put a block of ice in the refrigerator if possible.
  • Food that has partially thawed can be cooked or refrozen if you can see ice crystals or if it is still at a temperature of 40 F or lower.
  • Discard cans that have opened or are damaged or bulging. All undamaged cans must be thoroughly washed and disinfected.
  • Throw away all medicines, cosmetics, and other toiletries exposed to floodwater.
  • Throw out food that smells strange or has an odd color or texture.
  • Be especially careful to keep meat, eggs, fish, poultry, and leftovers cold to avoid spoilage.

Other Threats in Your Home

 Once the storm has passed and cleanup is possible, be aware of major threats to your health around the home, such as gas leaks, electrocution, and mold. Here’s how to manage these threats:
  • If you suspect a gas leak, go outside right away. Do not turn appliances or electrical switches on or off. If you turned your gas off, you need a licensed professional from the gas company or elsewhere to turn it back on.
  • Do not touch any electrical equipment while you are wet or in water; instead, call an electrician to evaluate your system. Stay away from downed utility lines, and always assume the power there is live and dangerous.
  • Before cleaning up, get the gear you need, such as hard hats, heavy work gloves, waterproof boots, and earplugs or headphones if you are using noisy cleanup equipment.
  • Be on the lookout for mold, which needs to be cleaned up quickly to prevent health issues. Ideally, if possible, clean up and dry out your home within 24 to 48 hours after the storm passes. To clean mold, mix a cup of household bleach with a gallon of uncontaminated water. Or, lightly mist mold spores with rubbing alcohol. In some cases, you might need a professional mold service.
  • Open all doors and windows to air out your home, and use fans to dry wet areas.
  • For kids’ toys exposed to floodwaters, mix a cup of bleach with 5 gallons of uncontaminated water. Clean the toys and let them air dry. Throw away stuffed animals and toys that can’t be cleaned.

Minding Your Mental Health

Once your house and life are back in order, you may still feel emotionally “spent,” and mental health experts say that’s not unusual. Disasters such as hurricanes are typically sudden and unexpected, and that can be overwhelming, according to the American Psychological Association. Among the common responses, the group says, are:

  • Feeling anxious, nervous, or filled with grief. Moodiness and irritability can happen, too.
  • Changed eating and sleeping patterns — either sleeping more or less, or eating more or less
  • “Triggers” that remind you of the event, such as heavy rain, and feeling anxious
  • Trouble getting along with family, friends, and co-workers
  • Physical problems such as headaches or nausea, or existing medical conditions that seem to be worse

While there’s no “typical” timeline for feeling better emotionally after a disaster, you might speed things along by talking about your experience, joining a local support group, focusing on healthy habits, and getting back to regular routines as soon as possible.

If things are not back to normal within a few months, consider getting professional help from a mental health expert.

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