Flood Waters Can Cause Deadly Bacterial Infections After a Hurricane
A North Carolina man reportedly died this week from a skin infection related to Hurricane Florence.
The number of hurricane-related deaths following Hurricane Florence continues to rise (estimates place it at at least 48, so far). One cause-and a particularly scary danger left behind after the flood waters have receded? Bacteria that can cause deadly skin infections.
This week, CNN reported that a North Carolina man died after a cut he got while cleaning up debris in his yard became infected. Even after amputating the infected leg, doctors were unable to save him. (Related: "Female" Hurricanes Kill More People Than "Male" Ones.)
Unfortunately, it turns out this case isn't just a freak accident-the risk of getting a bacterial skin infection shoots up following a hurricane. "It really comes down to bacterial infections that are common in the environment that end up in floodwaters that people are not normally exposed to in a great quantity," David Howard, deputy director of public health in New Hanover County where the recent death occurred, told CNN. As a result, officials are warning residents to stay out of the water.
So, how exactly does this happen? "The hurricane can increase your risk of infections in one of several ways," says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. "The hurricane may expose you to microorganisms not normally in the environment because of contaminated water, spread of body fluids, or other vectors like mosquitoes brought to the area from the storm." (Related: 5 Scary Things You Can Catch from Floodwater After a Hurricane)
The first is particularly worrisome. Think about it this way: When hurricanes cause flooding, the bacteria from all kinds of nasty places-dumpsters, sewers, industrial waste sites-get flushed out and swirled around, forming a kind of toxic flood water stew. As a result, the infection-causing bacteria can end up in your flooded front yard where you might be exposed. In North Carolina, CNN called out two particular causes for concern: overflowing waste pits from hog farms, which can contain E. coli and salmonella and ash from coal plants, which contains toxic heavy metals.
On top of the risk of contaminated waters, weathering a hurricane and cleaning up the aftermath might make you more susceptible to cuts and scrapes, which "increases your risk of infections by impairing your skin barrier," explains Dr. Zeichner. (Hurricanes might not be a common concern, but even seemingly healthy self-care can put your skin barrier at risk-earlier this year, one woman reported a serious skin infection after she got a run of the mill microblading treatment.)
The bottom line? If you have any cuts or scrapes that may have been exposed to contaminated flood waters, take them extra seriously. "While not common, skin infections can become serious and spread throughout the body, causing severe illnesses or even rarely death," explains Dr. Zeichner.
To prevent things from becoming that serious in the first place, stay out of any flood waters after a storm.
Secondly, level up your first aid game. "You should always exercise basic first aid to any open cuts but be extra vigilant in the setting of a hurricane," says Dr. Zeichner. "Clean any wound with soap and water and immediately apply an anti-bacterial bacitracin ointment to prevent infections."
Finally, stay vigilant for any signs of infection so you can nip it in the bud ASAP. "If the skin looks red and feels tender or warm, visit your dermatologist for an evaluation," advises Dr. Zeichner. "You may need an oral antibiotic."