Health concerns linger after hurricane passes

Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina

Strategies for Well-Being

All of us, at any given time, can find ourselves in the path of a hurricane, or have loved ones who are affected.

We all breathe a sigh of relief when we get the “I’m OK” call or message. But, unfortunately, there is still the potential for danger, after the rain stops, or the waters recede.

Residents may face a host of potential health problems from the water – and from what the water leaves behind. Floodwater can cause physical and mental challenges.

Floodwater is more than simple rain. It’s often contaminated with sewage and chemicals and can hide sharp metal or glass objects.

Sewage can cause boils or rashes on parts of the body that are submerged for extended periods of time, especiall the legs. Chemicals can cause rashes and burning of the skin and eyes after exposure.

What may be more common are bouts of diarrhea or other stomach problems if people come into contact with contaminated water or consume food or drink that has. Using items that have been submerged can also cause stomach problems.

Doctors often see more people with respiratory infections after floodwaters recede and people are allowed to return to their homes. Contamination and the mold that quickly grows in a warm environment like Texas can exacerbate asthma or trigger allergies.

Walls, floors and anything with a hard surface that has come into contact with floodwater – like appliances, countertops or children’s play areas – need to be cleaned with soap and water and disinfected with a bleach solution.

Fabrics should be washed in hot water or dry-cleaned. Furniture – like beds and upholstered sofas and chairs – that can be saved should be dried in the sun and then sprayed with a disinfectant. Carpets should be steam-cleaned.

Food and beverages that have come into contact with floodwater should be thrown away. The Food and Drug Administration suggests that people should also throw away prescription drugs, even those that are in their original containers or with screw tops, as they may no longer be safe if they’ve come into contact with contaminated water.

Floods typically flush out mosquitoes and interrupt their breeding cycle, but when the flooding stops, there is an increased risk of infection from a mosquito-borne illness like Zika or West Nile. Mosquitoes thrive in standing water and breed quickly when there is a lot of it. After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, studies showed areas that were directly impacted saw an increase in cases of West Nile.

Mosquitoes aren’t the only creatures to worry about after a storm. Creatures including ants, rodents, reptiles and house pets are displaced.

People with lung conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – known as COPD – have to be especially wary of air pollution after the storm.

When the particulate count – or amount of harmful particles in the air – is high, coughs are common. Some people may not be able to shake that cough.

After Katrina, local doctors dubbed patients’ lingering respiratory symptoms – including cough, runny nose and sinus problems – ‘’Katrina cough.”

Although researchers debate whether people who live through hurricanes have more respiratory issues, one study of more than 1,200 children and teens found that younger people in hurricane areas are more likely to get upper and lower respiratory infections after the storm.

The biggest health concern from a flood may be mental, studies show.

Hurricanes and flooding generate additional anxiety, depression and stress. The storms can exacerbate existing mental health problems or lead to new ones.

Stress is common both during and after any natural disaster. Tears may come easier, sleep may be a challenge, worry or a desire to be alone may be especially strong, thinking may become muddled, and it may be hard to remember things or to listen to people. And it may be hard to even accept help, experts say.

Some people may develop problems related to the lingering challenges associated with post-traumatic stress disorder, but the majority of those affected should recover in time. People who have strong bonds with family, friends and co-workers tend to recover best, so experts suggest paying close attention to those relationships to help speed recovery.

The hurricanes that hit the U.S. also unleashed a cloud of pollutants that pose health dangers – in both the short term and long term.

When Katrina flooded the city of New Orleans, one of many concerns in its wake was contamination.

Several chemical plants, petroleum refining facilities and contaminated sites, including Superfund sites, were covered by floodwaters. In addition, hundreds of commercial establishments, such as service stations, pest control businesses and dry cleaners, may have released potentially hazardous chemicals into the floodwaters.

The hurricane may have gone, but health concerns and disease risk remains for all who went through it.

Disclaimer: This column is for informational purposes only. If you have a medical condition or concern, please seek professional care from your doctor or other health professional. Glenn Ellis is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist and is available through


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