5 Hurricane Health Dangers


Sarah Handzel, BSN, RN

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flooded street after hurricane

The heavy flooding and damage caused by hurricanes can bring you in contact with hidden germs that cause disease. These storms can also affect your ability to get medications you may need if you get sick, or in your day-to-day life. However, it’s possible to minimize your risk and help protect yourself from these hurricane-related threats.

To stay safe, one of the best things you can do is practice good hygiene, including frequent hand washing and wound care. Washing your hands with soap and water from clean sources—like emergency hand-washing stations set up by local and governmental rescue organizations—is one of the best ways to reduce the number of germs you’re exposed to. If you have an open wound on your body, it’s important to keep the wound clean and covered to help prevent infections. However, if you develop signs of any infection or illness, it’s important to seek assistance from your doctor immediately. Your doctor can help you if you start to experience any symptoms of the diseases that are common during hurricanes.

1. Gastrointestinal Diseases

Many problems that occur after hurricanes are the result of flooding that washes water from sewage systems, farms, and other water sources into communities and drinking water facilities. This causes the spread of viral and bacterial contaminants, such as E. coli, salmonella, norovirus, and hepatitis.

Other germs found in contaminated water can cause many serious diseases, including:

  • Leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can lead to kidney and liver failure, respiratory problems, and even death.

  • Dysentery, an infectious disease caused by bacteria or amoebas, which are small, parasitic organisms that invade body tissues. Dysentery is a serious illness that causes severe gastrointestinal symptoms, like bloody diarrhea, abdominal pain, fever, and dehydration.

  • Cholera, an infection caused by bacteria which leads to watery diarrhea. Cholera can cause severe dehydration quickly, which can be fatal if left untreated. However, most people infected with cholera will have only mild symptoms or no symptoms at all.

  • Typhoid fever, which is caused by salmonella bacteria. People with typhoid fever experience a high fever, abdominal pain, and constipation and diarrhea.

Some of these diseases, like cholera and typhoid fever, are rare in industrialized countries, but can still occur during natural disasters. You can help protect yourself against these threats by practicing good hygiene, avoiding any food or drink contaminated by flood water, and avoiding contact with flood water as much as possible.

2. Respiratory Problems

Flood waters surrounding buildings and homes make it more likely for mold to grow. Mold spores can make breathing difficult for everyone, especially people with existing mold allergies or asthma. Also, if you have certain medical conditions, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may be more at risk for developing infections in your lungs.

To stay safe around mold, be sure to wear proper protective gear, like an N95 mask, that covers your nose and mouth. These masks can help prevent mold spores from entering your airways. If you have difficulty breathing at any time, seek professional medical help immediately.

3. Skin Infections

Some bacterial contaminants, like Vibrio vulnificus, live in warm coastal waters and can easily be washed ashore during a hurricane. Others, like Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) are sometimes passed from person to person in cramped conditions. Both types of bacteria can cause severe skin infections. When disasters like hurricanes strike, you may be exposed to flood waters or take refuge in a crowded shelter, which can increase your risk.

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Medical Reviewers: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Sep 8, 2017

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Medical References

  1. Personal Hygiene and Handwashing After a Disaster or Emergency. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  2. Flooding and communicable diseases fact sheet. World Health Organization.