From Asthma to Birth Complications: The Unexpected Ways Hurricanes, Wildfires, Tornadoes, and Blizzards Harm Your Health

Whenever extreme weather strikes, the news continuously reports rising death tolls. We don’t often see coverage of the health consequences that continue after disasters subside. Natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes, tsunamis, and blizzards have unexpected health consequences to those living near them — even after they’re gone. Let’s look at these in more detail.

Hurricanes

Respiratory problems

Asthma patient inhaling medication for treating shortness of breath

Make sure you have your inhaler handy if you have respiratory problems. | iStock.com/zlikovec

Surprisingly, contaminated water isn’t the only health hazard you need to worry about immediately following a hurricane. Breathing in mold spores can worsen already-existing conditions like asthma and other lung conditions. According to The Atlantic, this can trigger allergies and can even weaken your immune system.

Next: There’s a reason floodwaters are so dangerous.

Bacterial infections

Woman with umbrella walks from her car

Flood water can become extremely contaminated. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

The strong winds associated with hurricanes die down, but accompanying flooding — and its damaging after-effects — often last. Floodwaters can easily become optimal breeding grounds for all kinds of bacteria and associated diseases. Business Insider says eating or drinking items contaminated with these bacteria can lead to devastating — sometimes even fatal — illness.

Next: Beware of post-flood mosquito infestations.

West Nile virus

Mosquito in a Lab

All that still water attracts mosquitos. | Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images

Mosquito-borne illnesses become common in areas devastated by flooding — such as those affected by strong hurricanes. The Chicago Tribune noted in an article that one of the four mosquito types that bite humans could be a carrier for West Nile virus. Still, even though 70 percent of those bitten don’t get sick, risk increases as flooding continues.

Next: Don’t underestimate the psychological damage of natural disasters.

Post-traumatic stress

Couple sitting on the floor looking upset.

Controlling your emotions may not be easy. | Antonio Guillem/iStock/Getty Images

Disasters like hurricanes can leave entire communities and their environments in despair — and not just physically. According to Mental Health America, it’s completely normal to have difficulty managing your emotions following a life-altering tragedy. However, if you feel your emotions are too intense, or your inability to control them doesn’t go away with time, it’s important to seek out professional help.

Next: Even when you aren’t near the flames, wildfires can hurt your heart — and much more.

Wildfires

Heart problems

Stethoscope sitting on an red ECG printout

Air pollution can significantly impact your heart health. | iStock.com/RTimages

If you have a history of heart trouble, beware. The American Heart Association says the air pollution that results from wildfires has been linked to heart problems. Don’t let your guard down just because the fire’s out, though. TIME Health also warns that exposure to smoke from nearby wildfires is just as dangerous after a wildfire has died down as it is while it’s still actively burning.

Next: If you have this condition, your health is at risk — even if you aren’t close to a wildfire in your area.

Asthma

3D illustration of Lungs

Those with asthma are at the highest risk of an attack and complications. | iStock.com/yodiyim

Inhaling too much smoke is harmful enough for people with healthy lungs. The CDC warns that even if you aren’t near an actual wildfire, the smoke can still impact your health and irritate your respiratory system. Those who already have asthma are at a much greater risk of experiencing major health complications during and following wildfires, including asthma attacks.

Next: One of the biggest dangers following an earthquake involves lack of access to medical care.

Earthquakes

Birth complications

Blue background with white baby onesie and sock

All of the stress can impact your baby’s health. | Dash_med/iStock/Getty Images

A systematic review published in the journal Obstetrical & Gynecological Survey, one of the biggest predictor of poor prenatal health involves expectant mothers’ mental health. Poor mental health following a traumatic event can significantly impact the health of an unborn baby. However, lack of access to proper medical care before or during childbirth can also pose major health risks to both women and their babies.

Next: Sometimes those with chronic diseases are at the greatest risk of injury and death.

Increased chronic disease mortality

Man with diabetes checking blood sugar

It’s harder to receive medication following a natural disaster. | iStock.com

Earthquakes, like other natural disasters, can make it difficult or even impossible for people with chronic conditions to get the care they need. According to the World Health Organization, those who need medication or immediate medical attention following a disaster, such as those with diabetes or heart disease, can’t get access to these necessities. Damage to nearby healthcare facilities also impacts these populations.

Next: Flying debris isn’t the only hazard associated with tornadoes.

Tornadoes

Electrical hazards

Tornado touching down in Oklahoma

You don’t want to get in the way of a tornado. | NOAA Photo Library/Getty Images

Tornadoes are some of the most destructive natural disasters in terms of infrastructure. When a twister tears through a highly developed area, downed power lines and exposed wires in and near buildings can put you in danger of electrocution. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration urges that you report hazards like these to your local authorities to avoid potentially fatal incidents.

Next: Structural damage could become a health hazard if you don’t know what to look for.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

Contemporary elegant home office

Stay indoors as much as possible. | mihalis_a/iStock/Getty Images

Broken gas lines following a tornado can release deadly gasses, warns the American Red Cross. This is why it’s important not to return to homes or other buildings until authorities tell you it’s safe to do so. If you lose power during a tornado, keep all gas-powered appliances, like generators, outdoors and away from any open windows.

Next: Contaminated food and water doesn’t just upset the balance of bacteria in your body.

Tsunamis

Hepatitis A

Young woman breathing fresh air

You’re more likely to ingest something nasty post-hurricane. | gpointstudio/Getty Images

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hepatitis A is a virus that attacks and infects the liver. You’re exposed to this virus when you ingest an object, such as a food or drink, contaminated with feces from a person infected with hepatitis A. Like many other bacterial and viral diseases, it’s more common to contract a disease in this way following a disaster like a tsunami or hurricane.

Next: Flooding could potentially expose you to dangerous disease.

Cholera

Floodwater surrounds a home after Hurricane Harvey

There is some scary bacteria in that water. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

Poor sanitation following natural disasters can significantly increase your risk of infection. According to the CDC, cholera bacteria are commonly found in water or food contaminated with infected human feces. Symptoms could include vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping in the legs. About 10% of cases are severe.

Next: Officials advise residents not to drive during blizzards — but not because of bad road conditions.

Blizzards

Carbon monoxide poisoning

A novice driver jerks the wheel sharply and stalls out while trying to ascend a snowy hill in winter.

This is something you probably didn’t think of. | Micah Wright/Cheat Sheet

In 2016, the New York Daily News reported that a mother and her son had died in their car during a blizzard. They didn’t get into a car accident due to dangerous road conditions or succumb to the harsh winter weather, though. It turned out the car’s exhaust pipe, blocked by surrounding snow, unknowingly exposed them to carbon monoxide as the car ran to keep them warm. If you have to drive during heavy snow, always be cautious when using your car’s heating system.

Next: Don’t drink alcohol during a blizzard. 

Dehydration

snowy road

Water may be an afterthought when snow is all over the place. | JEAN PIERRE CLATOT/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s harder to remember to drink fluids when you’re cold. Hydration is still essential, though, even when taking shelter indoors from the cold. To stay hydrated, it’s important to continue replenishing your body with fluids, even if you don’t “feel” thirsty. However, alcohol doesn’t count — drinking too much can actually mask symptoms of dehydration.

Next: What happens when you can’t stay warm?

Hypothermia

Man running in snow

Hypothermia is a real threat in freezing conditions. | Christof Stache/AFP/Getty Images

Whether you’re trying to stay warm in the comfort of your own home or you’re trapped in your car, exposure to low temperatures still threatens your health. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of hypothermia include slurred speech, a weak pulse, drowsiness, confusion, and slow and/or shallow breathing. At temperatures below 95 degrees F, your heart and other organs start shutting down.

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