When disaster strikes, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself and your family from harmful germs and bacteria. Floodwater causes a number of serious health risks, from being hurt or killed by fast flowing water, to becoming vulnerable to infections and disease.
After the storm
Once the bad weather has subsided, you may want to return to your home to check out the damage. This can be very dangerous as heavy furniture may have moved or become unstable inside your home. Drain covers are often missing, and dangerous debris such as dead animals could be floating about.
The murky water will also contain a mixture of sewage, animal waste, chemical waste and garbage, all of which contain harmful germs.
Risk of infection after a flood
Depending how extreme the flood conditions are, the potential risk of spreading infectious disease can vary significantly. Diarrhoeal epidemics are extremely common after natural disasters such as flooding, in both developed and developing countries. There is also serious risk of spreading the following water-borne diseases:
Exposure to water contaminated with pesticides, chemicals and industrial waste can cause irritation and inflammation to your skin.
A severe respiratory disease that causes inflammation to lungs. Symptoms include a cough, fever and difficulty breathing.
Common in floodwater that is contaminated with rodent urine, this bacterial infection causes headaches, muscle pain and chills.
Occurs when a normally harmless bacteria found in dust, soil or animal waste infects a wound, this potentially fatal disease can develop. Symptoms include muscle stiffness and spasms, lockjaw and difficulty swallowing.
Most common in Africa and India, Hepatitis A is caused by water contaminated with faecal matter. Symptoms include diarrhoea, nausea, muscle pain and mild fever.
A bacterial infection caused by drinking contaminated water or eating food that’s been prepared using contaminated water. Symptoms include stomach cramps, severe, watery diarrhoea and nausea.
highly contagious and potentially life threatening, this bacterial infection is spread by contact with items contaminated with faecal matter containing the organism. Symptoms include stomach pain, headaches, a high temperature and stomach upset (constipation or diarrhoea).
In tropical climates, vector-borne diseases are a particular risk after a flood. A large body of stagnant water provides the perfect breeding-ground for mosquitoes flies, ticks, lice and fleas, which increase the transmission of disease as they travel from one infected person to bite another.
A single mosquito bite can cause malaria, which can be fatal if not treated promptly. Symptoms may not appear for a couple of weeks, making malaria difficult to control. Sufferers experience high fever accompanied by sweats and chills, diarrhoea, muscle pain, headache and vomiting.
Like malaria, you cannot catch dengue fever from another person, but via a mosquito bite. Symptoms include an extremely high temperature (up to 41°C or 105° F), muscle and joint pain, headaches, a pain behind the eyes and aching bones.
Why is there greater risk of infection after a flood?
- The number of people relying on the medical services increases greatly, putting a strain on medical supplies and disrupting your usual access to them
- Drinking water can become contaminated with raw sewage, oil, chemicals and other dangerous material
- If waste disposal becomes compromised, it can lead to human and animal waste contaminating the drinking water
- Dangerous debris increases the risk of injury, which increases the risk of infection
- When people lose their homes, whole communities can become displaced, living in relief shelters or camps. When lots of people live in a confined space without sufficient hygiene, the risk of spreading harmful bacteria is greatly increased
Tips for staying healthy after a flood
Make sure your living space is as hygienically clean as possible to avoid spreading bacteria and disease. By following these simple steps, you and your family will survive the aftermath of flooding and be able to return to a normal life as soon as possible:
- Personal hygiene is important, make sure you wash every day using clean water
- Dispose of rubbish properly every day
- Keep all food preparation areas as clean and dry as possible
- Wash food in sterilised water and cook thoroughly before eating
- Change your clothes daily
- Wash hands thoroughly after using the toilet, before you handle food and after being in contact with contaminated items
- Boil water and allow it to cool before drinking or washing up – it could contain nasty parasites
If you or someone in your family is injured:
- Wounds should be kept clean, dry and covered at all times. Open cuts and sores can easily become infected without proper care.
- Always use sterilised water to clean a wound. If none is available, use an antiseptic wipe.
- If your wound becomes infected, starts to swell, becomes red or weeps, seek medical attention immediately
- Help prevent infection by using antibacterial hand gel to sanitise your hands before dressing a wound.
Don’t let children play in flooded areas. Water can flow extremely fast, is very unpredictable and may contain fast-moving debris from trees, road vehicles or other dangerous items.
The Clean Up
The clean-up operation can be extremely upsetting, but as your personal belongings dry out, you need to make sure they are properly disinfected or thrown away to avoid contamination.
Make sure you wear protective clothing such as heavy-duty rubber boots and waterproof gloves. It’s also a good idea to wrap up warm in case you get stranded, and wrap your mobile phone in a protective, waterproof cover.
- Wash all walls, floors, surfaces and behind cupboards with hot, soapy water followed by a disinfectant. You may need to do this several times.
- Machine-wash all soft furnishings, clothes and bedding on the hottest wash, ideally at 60ºC or above. You could also add an antibacterial laundry cleanser such as Dettol Laundry Sanitiser to your load to kill 99.9% of bacteria
- Throw away badly damaged items and carpets
- Professionally clean any upholstery that hasn’t been damaged
- Don’t eat any food that has come into contact with floodwater.
- Throw away all meat and dairy products from your fridge if there has been any loss of power
- Throw away ice cream and any other items that you would eat cold, straight from the freezer
- Try to keep pets and children away from all affected areas, as they are more susceptible to infection
- Wash all cooking utensils in hot, clean water and disinfect with a safe antibacterial washing liquid before use. Never use bleach on cooking utensils.
- Throw away all wooden spoons and chopping boards that have come into contact with floodwater.
- Do not use any damaged work surfaces – they will harbour germs and could quickly spread infection
Check for signs of infection
Consult your doctor straight away if you or anyone in your family has any of the following symptoms:
- Stomach cramps