The Health Impacts of Irma: How to Stay Safe

Once survival and recovery recede as priorities, focus turns to the unexpected aftereffects for victims

by Manny Alvarez, MD | Updated 11 Sep 2017 at 1:49 PM

At just the beginning of hurricane season, several major storms have already posed devastating threats to the U.S.

As you know, Hurricane Harvey took a serious gouge out of Texas recently, flooding many low-risk streets, taking lives, demolishing homes, and leaving residents in overwhelming turmoil.

Now, Hurricane Irma is threatening similar problems for Florida — with possible aftereffects that could reach far beyond Harvey and most other hurricanes. While residents in Florida, and even South Carolina, are preparing for the immediate storm damage, people should get prepared for major health effects afterward, too.

After the immediate landfall of a hurricane, people affected by the storm are simply thinking of survival and the recovery of important possessions. Once the storm subsides, however, they must turn to fighting the many unexpected aftereffects during the days, months and even years ahead.

For example, a whopping eight years after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, one four-year-old boy died while playing outside. Unfortunately, the boy had been infected by an amoeba that had never been found before in U.S. tap water. Experts say that the infection was likely a direct result of Katrina's floodwaters, which left standing water in key pipes for much too long.

In Hurricane Irma's case, Floridians should get prepared for anything. Once the hurricane's initial storm subsides, the real fight for many will begin.

Drowning. One of the biggest dangers that many residents risk during a hurricane is waiting out the storm, but people need to take Hurricane Irma seriously. If officials have issued voluntary or mandatory evacuations, they shouldn't linger.

Related: God Will Bless That Man for His Hurricane Irma Kindness

If people do choose to wait through the storm, however, they should get as far above the waterline as is possible and avoid the floodwaters at all costs. The risk of drowning is great during these storms, especially with heavy and sharp debris floating around.

Parasites and bacteria. Immediately following the risk of drowning, people should also beware of wading in or drinking the floodwater. At this point, the hurricane will have done much damage, likely contaminating the water with sewage, soil, food and debris.

As a result, many will suffer parasitic or bacterial infections from E. coli, salmonella, the norovirus and the rotavirus. In addition, some may get infected with cryptosporidium, a parasite that can live in water for up to 10 days.

It also easily travels from person to person in contaminated water. Interestingly, even public pools see outbreaks of crypto infections, but the problem amplifies in untreated floodwater. While many of these infections are easily treatable, the young or old and those suffering with dehydration will have a harder time fighting them off.

Related: During One Hurricane, This Mom Prayed to Be Spared

Wound infections. Wounds are another unavoidable result of a hurricane. Many will get hurt by the storm's damage, whether big or small, and they will need to treat those wounds as soon as possible.

Of particular concern for wounds is the deadly disease tetanus. While normal everyday activity in the US doesn't warrant much concern for tetanus, spoiled flooding and hurricane devastation make the disease a huge possibility for residents who bunker down.

Telltale signs of tetanus include a tightening of jaw muscles, muscle spasms, headache, fever and changes in heart rate or blood pressure. This condition needs treatment immediately. At the same time, people may also notice other infections due to standing in water or wet clothing for lengthy periods of time. Fungal and skin infections may arise, or even gangrene in some cases.

Mosquitoes. Next, in the aftermath of the hurricane, both standing water and floating debris make the affected areas ideal spots for breeding mosquitoes. Those in storm-damaged areas will likely see a rise in mosquito-borne illnesses such as Zika, West Nile, or dengue fever and should stay aware of any problematic symptoms.

Related: Post-Harvey, Health Experts in Texas Eye Mosquito Surge

Mental health. Last, those who have suffered through a hurricane's disaster may experience mental health disruptions due to stress. They may face a general anxiety, guilt, depression or grief, and some may develop post-traumatic stress disorder as well.

While this area of hurricane disaster needs more specific research, one study on the health effects of Katrina showed a 50 percent increase in probable mental illnesses among those affected. For each individual, the outcome on mental health will vary, but those in the low-income category are most at risk.

Those who have suffered through a hurricane's disaster may also experience mental health disruptions due to stress.

Hurricane Irma poses direct threats for anyone in its path as it heads for landfall in the U.S. and other countries. Still, the danger for those affected will not be over as soon as the storm has passed. People will need to be cautious of different health effects, seeking medical attention as soon as possible.

Overall, residents should stay safe with a proper food and water supply and evacuate as soon as authorities advise for an area.

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. This Fox News article is used by permission. It also appeared on AskDrManny.com. 

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