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Playing in Floodwater: All Fun and Games Until You’re Seriously Sick

Long Islanders know how to batten down the hatches for a hurricane, tropical storm or even just a bad rainstorm. Before the storm, we help friends and neighbors check generators, stock bottled water and prepare for the worst. But afterward, it’s just as important that we know how dangerous the receding floodwaters can be. The skies may be clear, but the streets can still be dangerous, as the residents of Smithtown awoke to when Hurricane Joaquin blew through earlier this month.

Kids can be especially tempted to splash through the streets-turned-canals, and recent photos of gleeful young adults tubing in the receding waters of Hurricane Joaquin show that there’s no age limit for play. Of course, sometimes contact with floodwater is unavoidable. You might need to traverse the flood to escape or even run daily errands. If you have to step into floodwaters, though, be extremely cautious and make sure you know how to recognize the symptoms of common waterborne illnesses.

Why Floodwater is Dangerous

Of course, rushing floodwater with a strong current is clearly dangerous because it can sweep you away. Many people have drowned in flooded areas, even in relatively shallow floodwaters. You should never, ever enter floodwaters under a strong current. It puts you and any rescuers at risk.

But water that’s as still as a pond is also extremely dangerous. Pathogens and bacteria carrying diarrheal diseases and worse can lurk in the most harmless-looking water. As the water sweeps through Long Island or other areas, it can pick up oil, harmful chemicals, and raw sewage.[2]

A short list of the health risks associated with floodwater includes:

While many of these diseases are treatable if you get swift medical attention, they are all to be taken seriously. So many symptoms of serious diseases can be mistaken for illnesses that are “no big deal,” like colds or a mild fever. The bottom line is that if you have been exposed to floodwater and exhibit any symptoms including headache, fever, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, urinary discomfort or have a wound or scrape that touched contaminated water, you should seek medical help right away.[3]

Diseases aren’t the only health risk associated with floods. A wall of water can sweep dangerous debris in its path, including sharp branches and metal scraps that put you at risk for serious wounds or tetanus from cuts. In floodwaters you also increase your risk of encountering mosquitos with West Nile, and standing in floodwater for too long can lead to developing a condition called trench foot or immersion foot, where your legs and feet develop painful blisters.

Some of the most serious dangers come from spilled chemicals and downed electrical lines. Floods are equal-opportunity destroyers: if a flood sweeps through a building where chemicals are stored, those chemicals will likely leach into the water where you’re now wading. Chemicals can cause skin burns or leech poisonous fumes into the surrounding air. The water can also damage utility poles and utility boxes, leaving power lines dangling close to water and electrical circuits exposed. Never approach power lines immersed in water, or attempt to fix a downed power line yourself.[4]

 

What to Do If You Get Sick from Floodwater

Everyone should know the location of their nearest urgent care center. Especially in the aftermath of a natural disaster, the convenience of urgent care is crucial when local emergency rooms are busy, or your primary care physician isn’t able to hold regular hours. Before you come, make sure you thoroughly wash any skin that came into contact with the water as soon as possible after exposure.[5]

If you sustain a chemical burn from spilled chemicals or a serious wound from sharp debris, go to the emergency room. For all non-life-threatening injuries, urgent care is your best bet for getting treated quickly and effectively.

An urgent care doctor will ask about your exposure to floodwater, perform a physical exam and potentially lab tests to find a diagnosis. If you have any open wounds, the doctor will see to those right away and set in action a plan against any infection you might have been exposed to. In a natural disaster, the professionals at every GoHealth urgent care center will do their utmost to help the community and treat anyone who needs medical care during any flooding in the New York City metro area.

There’s no reason to play in floodwater. The risks are too high to make your street your personal water park. Don’t do it, and don’t let your family and friends do it. For those who must brave a flood for emergency reasons, be careful and visit urgent care if you think your health’s been compromised. Even if the latest storm ruins the roads, the healthcare professionals at your GoHealth Urgent Care center can ensure that it doesn’t ruin your health.

 

[1] [1. “Long Island Sustains Minor Flooding, Wind Damage from Rain Storm,”

[2] [2. “Flood Waters or Standing Waters,” May 11, 2011, http://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/emergency/flood/standing.html]

[3] [3. “Infectious Disease After a Disaster,” Aug. 21, 2014, http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/disease/infectious.asp]

[4] [4. “Protect Yourself and Others from Electrical Hazards After a Disaster,” June 20, 2014, http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/electrical.asp; “Protect Yourself From Chemicals Released During a Natural Disaster,” June 20, 2014, http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/chemicals.asp]

[5] [5. “Health Concerns Abound in Aftermath of Flooding,” Oct. 6, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/10/06/us/ap-us-east-coast-rainstorm-health.html]

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