Hurricanes cause widespread destruction even after they’re gone. Sadly, those affected are more likely to get sick, whether it’s because of polluted water or injuries sustained during the storm. A major storm can also have long-lasting mental health consequences. Here are all the ways a hurricane impacts your health — and what you can do to cope, or help someone else recover.
The spread of contagious disease following a hurricane
It’s not always the storm itself, but the aftermath of its resulting floods that pose the greatest health risks. According to the World Health Organization, extensive flooding often brings with it a wide range of destruction — in the form of disease. It’s much more likely to contract hepatitis A, cholera, and malaria near flooded areas. Without clean drinking water, risk for the spread of contagious disease grows. You can also contract less contagious infections on your skin, eyes, nose, and throat if you come in contact with polluted water.
Beware of open wounds
Disaster zones are dangerous, both during the actual event and after the fact. Scientific American reports unstable structures (like bridges) and combustable materials account for many injuries during and in the aftermath of hurricanes. Unfortunately, open wounds can become infected, and without proper medical treatment, these injuries can put your health at risk. They can even be fatal.
Be careful what you eat
Flood waters and power outages raise food safety concerns in affected areas. Eating contaminated food can make you sick within hours or days. The USDA offers food safety tips for those affected by flooding and other consequences of devastating hurricanes. If you’re ever in doubt about the safety of the food in your refrigerator or freezer, don’t taste test — just throw it away.
Restricted access to medication and chronic disease care
When disaster strikes, some people may not be in immediate danger — but if they don’t get proper care for certain chronic conditions, they could be at high risk for severe complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people living with diabetes, heart disease, asthma, and other chronic conditions are dangerously affected when faced with environmental disasters like hurricanes. Without proper medication, some individuals could face major health crises.
Higher mortality in communities after hurricanes
Not every hurricane-related death happens during the actual storm. Reviews of death records in locations impacted by hurricanes show an increase in the amount of deaths in the months following these disasters. Communities affected by Hurricane Sandy (New Jersey), for example, saw higher than average mortality rates in the month following the storm, especially among elderly residents. Some experts point to lack of social support as a probable cause.
Stress and anxiety after trauma
It’s not uncommon to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after surviving a hurricane. Disasters are traumatic, and feeling anxious, stressed out, and fearful is to be expected. If you need to talk with someone, licensed professionals in your area will listen and help. If someone you know is experiencing symptoms after a traumatic event, you can support them by listening — and encouraging them to talk with someone qualified to assist.
How to cope after trauma — or help someone you love
After disasters like hurricanes, don’t forget to take care of yourself — or take care of others. Everyone deals with trauma in their own way. However, there are things you can do to make the experience a little more bearable. The CDC suggests connecting with those around you to deal with feelings of stress and anxiety. Eating well and avoiding alcohol and drugs helps you cope physically. Emotionally, you can find support in friends and family members, doctors, and mental health professionals.