The 2017 hurricane season is on track to become one of the most active ever. In the Continental United States alone, we have seen two tropical storms (Cindy and Emily) and two hurricanes (Harvey and Irma). Floridians are no stranger to these storms and hurricanes. Our state gets hammered far more than any other U.S. state. In fact, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), from 1851 to 2017, Florida sustained 117 direct hits, representing a whopping 40 percent of all hurricanes in the U.S. Most of us manage to recover, even after we lose our homes and possessions, and we stay put. After all, Florida is paradise!
However, in the wake of a passing hurricane, and long after, our health is at an increased risk. The mosquito population explodes. Flood waters increase our exposure to dangerous bacteria, viruses, parasites, hazardous wastes, and industrial chemicals. Saturated homes, furniture, and clothing become breeding grounds for toxic mold. And in the aftermath, we are more susceptible to mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
Although nobody can stop a hurricane, we can take steps to protect and restore our health in the aftermath.
First, the good news, mosquitoes don’t fare too well in hurricanes. Adults generally don’t survive the high winds. Immediately after a hurricane, however the mosquito population explodes when the mosquito eggs laid in the soil during the previous floods hatch. This is when you tend to see large populations of floodwater mosquitoes, most of which are considered a “nuisance,” and not a health hazard. They don’t generally spread viruses that make people sick. It’s weeks or months later that the population of disease-carrying mosquitoes begins to rise, especially in areas that received more rainfall than usual but did not flood. These mosquitoes can spread infectious diseases, such as Zika, West Nile, and dengue fever.
To protect yourself from mosquitoes, whether they are the nuisance or disease-carrying type, take the following precautions:
- Keep the mosquitoes outside.
- Remove as many sources of standing water as possible from around your home (and ask your commercial property manager to do the same at your place of work).
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants.
- Use a natural mosquito repellant, such as lemon eucalyptus. (If you use sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first and then the mosquito repellant.)
Reduce Your Exposure to Bacteria and Parasites
Floodwaters dredge up all sorts of nasty and harmful bacteria and parasites. Some wash in from the ocean and others are leached from the soil or bubble up through sewers and septic systems. Your skin serves as an excellent barrier against most bacteria and parasites, so as long as you don’t ingest a bacteria or parasite or have an open wound, you are fairly safe. However, it’s still a good idea not to wade through flood waters and to avoid ingesting any of that water. Remain vigilant for any signs of infection or gastrointestinal distress, and consult a doctor or other medical professional if you develop symptoms.
E. Coli and Salmonella
The most common threat is from bacteria in human feces called E. coli. If you happen to ingest E. coli from tainted water or food (or accidently from the floodwaters), three or four days later, you may develop symptoms such as the following:
- Diarrhea, from mild to severe, from watery to bloody
- Abdominal cramps, pain, or tenderness
- Nausea and, though uncommon, vomiting
In more severe cases, you may experience bloody urine, decreased urine output, pale skin, bruising, and dehydration. Whether you have a mild or severe case, symptoms may last from a few days to over a week. See your doctor if the diarrhea persists or worsens. Salmonella, which produces nearly identical symptoms, also poses a threat.
To prevent infection from E. coli and salmonella, take the following precautions:
- If the water pressure in your home drops dramatically or your county issues a boil-water warning, boil your tap water (hard boil) for at least a full minute to make it safe to drink.
- Don’t eat raw or undercooked eggs, because they’re more likely to contain salmonella.
- Cook foods until they are well done.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before eating, after using the bathroom, before handling food, and between handling different food items.
- Wash or peel produce before eating it.
- Avoid cross-contamination of foods — keep food items separated as much as possible, and wash cutting boards, counters, knives, and so forth after they come in contact with uncooked foods.
- Don’t prepare or serve foods to others when you have symptoms.
Vibrio and Tetanus
Another bacteria, called Vibrio, poses a risk to people who have open wounds. These bacteria live in the ocean but can be swept up onto land by strong storms. If you have an open wound that comes into contact with flood waters, take the following precautions:
- Wash the wound with soap and water.
- Apply an antibiotic cream.
- Cover the wound.
- Keep a close eye on the wound and contact your doctor immediately if it becomes “hot and angry” — warm, red, and raised or you develop a fever and chills.
- Do not sleep on the wound.
Open wounds also increase the risk of tetanus — an infection caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani, which affects the brain and nervous system, leading to muscle stiffness (lock jaw). If you have an open wound and it comes into contact with flood waters, ask your doctor about getting a tetanus booster if you haven’t had one in the past ten years.
Norovirus and Rotavirus
Incidents of norovirus and rotavirus may also increase after a hurricane. The classic symptom of norovirus is vomiting, which can become severe. Norovirus infection is probably the most common cause of what’s referred to as the “stomach flu,” even though, technically, it is not classified as influenza (a type of lung infection). Rotavirus, which tends to infect children more than adults, is characterized by diarrhea.
To prevent infection, follow the same precautions as you do to avoid bacterial infection. Frequent handwashing, especially after using the bathroom and before handling food is crucial.
In certain areas, a parasite known as the rat lungworm poses an increased threat after a flood. The larvae of this parasite live in snails, so if you eat an infected snail, or another animal that has eaten an infected snail, such as a fish, crawfish, or frog, you can become infected. Some people accidently ingest infected snails that happen to be on their produce; the snails can be that small!
The larvae develop into worms that can travel from the intestines to the brain, die there, and trigger a reaction, typically resulting in headache or fever. As the worm penetrates the intestines, you may also feel abdominal discomfort. In severe cases, humans can develop meningitis, which is potentially fatal.
To prevent infection, wash your produce, be sure to fully cook any seafood you eat, and avoid the escargot.
Cryptosporidium is a water-borne disease commonly spread through infected drinking water and recreational water. Infection becomes more common in flooded areas. Symptoms of infection are diarrhea, dehydration, vomiting, weight loss, stomach cramps (or pain), fever, nausea, and vomiting.
To prevent infection, avoid contact with contaminated water, wash your hands before handling food, wash your produce, and cook foods thoroughly. The biggest risk is from drinking contaminated water, such as unfiltered water from shallow lakes, rivers, streams, and unprotected wells.
What About Drinking the Water?
Days before a hurricane makes landfall, people rush to the grocery stores to buy drinking water. However, drinking water in many areas is as safe as it normally is, so usually there is no need for panic. If your water pressure is drastically lower than normal (indicating a possible breach in the pipe that carries water to your house) or your county issues a boil-water order (check your county’s website), then your water may be unsafe to drink. You’ll have to boil the water (hard boil) for at least a full minute to kill the bacteria.
One of the most serious health concerns after tropical storms and hurricanes is toxic mold, which often causes chronic conditions that remain undiagnosed for years. To compound the problem, approximately one quarter of the population carries the HLA-DR gene, which diminishes the body’s ability to deactivate and eliminate mold toxins. But even if you do not have this gene, high levels of mold can overload your system and exceed your body’s capacity for eliminating the toxins. This is especially true in areas that experience flooding and expose people to additional sources of environmental toxins.
Chronic mold exposure can cause a long list of health conditions, including:
- Allergies and asthma
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS)
- Chronic pain
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
- Multiple Sclerosis (MS)
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Sinus problems
- Somatization (unexplained health conditions)
- Temperature regulation or dysregulation problems
After a flood, I strongly encourage you to have your home tested for mold (ERMI testing) and, if toxic mold is detected, hire an expert in mold remediation to address the problem before re-entering your residence or business.
If you decide to handle the mold cleanup yourself (not something I recommend), do your research. Be sure to wear a good breathing mask or apparatus, and choose safe and effective cleaning products (to kill and remove the mold) and encapsulants (to prevent the mold from returning):
- Cleaning products: Borax and Benefect are both good products. Borax is cheap, effective, and less toxic than most. Benefect is an EPA-registered anti-fungal and anti-bacterial sanitizer.
- Encapsulants: Encapsulants cover any mold that remains after cleaning to prevent it from spreading and to protect surfaces from mold. Two of the best encapsulants are Caliwel and Concrobium.
Remember to clean first, and then apply the encapsulant.
Mold remediation is a good first step, but you may also need a mold detox to remove the mold and mold toxins from your body. A medically supervised detox can help, as I explain in a previous post, “Toxic Mold: How a Medically Supervised Detox Can Help.” A medically supervised detox involves several treatments:
- Dietary modifications to stop feeding the mold or yeast in your digestive tract.
- Antifungals to kill off any mold in your body.
- Medications and supplements to sequester mold from your liver.
- Supplements to support the liver, including choline, glutathione, and milk thistle, which can help the body to flush mold toxins from your liver.
- Treatments to increase levels of alpha-Melanocyte Stimulating Hormone (a-MSH), an anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-fungal hormone.
After a hurricane, you are likely to hear a great deal in the news about chemical plants and storage facilities that have leaked dangerous chemicals into the environment, but that is not the only source of increased levels of unhealthy chemicals caused by flooding. Most people store a lot of toxic chemicals in their basements and garages and even in their homes, such as gasoline, oil, engine coolant, solvents, and cleaning products. When flood waters enter these areas and then recede or are pumped out, many of those chemicals enter the water and may escape into the surrounding air and find their way into our drinking water and food supply.
You can limit your exposure somewhat by not wading through the chemical-laced water, but you cannot avoid these chemicals completely. In addition to possibly detoxing yourself, as explained in the previous section, I encourage you to reduce your toxic load by limiting your exposure to toxic chemicals overall. You can do that in several ways. Here are just a few suggestions:
- Use natural cleaning products and cosmetics.
- Don’t use commercial air fresheners.
- Use natural laundry detergent, and avoid dryer sheets and dry cleaning.
- Eat whole foods and avoid processed and canned foods.
- Avoid drinking out of plastic containers, including water bottles.
- Have your home tested for mold and for radon gas and have any issues resolved.
- Shop for low-VOC (volatile organic compound) products, such as furniture and bedding.
Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Some people who survive natural disasters develop depression as a result of their losses or PTSD from living through the trauma of the devastation or from being displaced from their homes temporarily or permanently. Those who live with these conditions may find short-term relief through the use of pharmaceutical medications or longer-term relief through therapy.
However, more and more evidence is reinforcing the connection between the body and the brain; after all, the brain is part of the body. For example, gut health has been linked to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other mental disorders, and some studies show that the production of neurotransmitters begins in the gut before the brain. Other dietary factors, including nutritional deficiencies and poor control of blood sugar can radically alter brain function and mood.
If you are seeing a doctor who has been prescribing medication for depression, PTSD, or other mental illnesses, continue taking your medication. However, I strongly recommend that you explore a long-term, whole-health solution.
Boost Your System
During and after a hurricane or other natural or man-made disaster, please remember that the human body, your body, is your best defense against illness. Your skin is a natural barrier that blocks infectious agents. Your immune system provides a second line of defense. And your body has an amazing ability to flush harmful substances from itself and to deal emotionally with stressful conditions.
As you deal with the tragedy around you, do not neglect the power within you. Give your body what it needs to protect you from the elevated health risks. Continue to eat a healthy diet, engage in physical activity, improve and maintain your gut health, detox when required, and take nutritional supplements as needed when the increased stress of the traumatic event depletes your body’s store of nutrients.
Always remember that the best defense against illness is optimal health.
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About the Author: Dr. Matt Lewis, D.C., CFMP®, specializes in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of the symptoms related to chronic and unexplained illness through nutrition, lifestyle, chiropractic, and other natural approaches to whole-health healing in Tampa, Florida. He earned his B.S. in Biology from Shenandoah University, his Doctorate in Chiropractic from Life University, his CFMP® from Functional Medicine University, and his certification as a Digestive Health Specialist (DHS) through the Food Enzyme Institute. Dr. Lewis’ passion for health and wellness stems from his own personal experience. With a family history of autoimmune conditions and diabetes, and his own lab tests showing his genetic susceptibility to Hashimoto’s thyroiditis (autoimmune thyroid), he has learned how to restore his own health and vigor to prevent the onset of these and other illnesses and live an incredibly active life. Through this process, he acquired a deeper understanding of health and wellness, which he now offers his patients in Tampa.