In the aftermath of a flood, evidence has proven that there is an increased risk of people developing respiratory infections. The dangers of flooding extend beyond visible damage. Contaminants are carried in floodwaters and when people come into contact with these they can develop a spectrum of different infections depending on the composition or nature of the contaminants. Discover more as Bloom and trusted medical partner, Momentum Health4Me, outline the respiratory health risks in more detail and provide insight into how you can protect yourself and your loved ones in the event of a flood.
Flooding in South Africa: a local threat to respiratory health
In 2022 and 2023 South Africans experienced flooding in KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Town. Heavy rainfall and the subsequent flooding of rivers caused catastrophic devastation. Floodwater destroyed homes, roads and infrastructure, affecting countless communities across these regions. Many people lost their homes and the disaster had a significant impact on local industry and businesses. Flooding can also have an effect on healthcare. Not only are people cut off from access to medical facilities, but floodwater increases one’s risk of disease and infection because of the contaminated water and compromised basic services.
How floodwater creates respiratory health risks
Floodwater creates respiratory health risks through a combination of its interaction with the environment. Here are some of the main health effects of flooding:
- Contaminated water. Floodwater collects pollutants and contaminants from various sources, like sewers, accumulated waste, and industrial and agricultural by-products. As it flows, it makes its way through rivers, roads and even into homes, where it delivers these accumulated harmful substances that are a deadly combination of chemicals, heavy metals, bacteria and other pathogens.
- Microbial growth and airborne disease. Flood areas provide the right conditions for the propagation of microorganisms, like bacteria, mould and fungi. These organisms then release spores or toxins into the air, increasing one’s risk of developing respiratory conditions, asthma and other types of allergies.
- Waterborne disease. Floodwater carries bacteria, viruses, parasites and other pathogens. As people come into contact with this polluted water, they can inadvertently inhale these contaminants, which can even be absorbed through one’s skin. This raises one’s risk of developing severe gastrointestinal or respiratory infections.
- Air pollution. Floodwater can aerosolise pollutants, including particle matter, toxic gas and organic compounds. These contaminants can become airborne, which contributes to poor or dangerous air quality. The risk of people, or animals, developing respiratory infections increases when this happens.
- Chemical poisoning. Floodwater damages buildings, industrial sites, households and agricultural plantations, leading to the accumulation of hazardous materials like asbestos and lead. When these people come into contact with these contaminants, they can develop respiratory infections and other serious health complications.
- Mould growth. Flooded buildings and homes remain damp for extended periods. This promotes the growth of mould and mildew. Mould spores and mycotoxins are released into the air, which can cause respiratory infections and trigger many types of allergies.
- Sewage overflow. Flooding can damage sewage systems, leading to an overflow of raw sewage into the floodwaters. The presence of harmful pathogens, like E.coli, increases one’s risk of infection.
- Vector-borne disease. Stagnant floodwaters can also become a breeding ground for disease-carrying vectors, like mosquitoes. These vectors can transmit diseases, like malaria or bilharzia.
Types of respiratory infections linked to floodwater exposure
These are the most common types of respiratory infections caused by floodwaters:
- Pneumonia. Floodwater carries bacteria, like Streptococcus pneumoniae, viruses and fungi, which can cause pneumonia. This is a serious, life-threatening respiratory infection where one’s air sacs in the lungs become inflamed, causing them to fill with fluid. Symptoms include extreme difficulty breathing, chest pain and a high fever.
- Bronchitis. Inhaling contaminated waterborne pathogens can increase your risk of developing bronchitis. This is the inflammation of the bronchial tubes which carry air to and from the lungs. Symptoms range in severity from difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent cough and mucus production.
- Influenza (flu). This is a contagious respiratory infection that is caused by the influenza virus. Flood-borne viruses can contribute to this infection. It presents as a sudden onset of symptoms including a fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat and general fatigue. While flu can last up to two weeks, particularly vulnerable people, like flood victims who don’t have access to medical facilities or who are living in a hazardous environment, run the risk of an extended, long-term infection as well as other health complications.
- Mould-related respiratory infections. This health condition is caused by exposure to airborne pathogens, like mould spores. Flooding causes damp conditions, which breed mould. When people inhale these spores, they can develop respiratory issues, like allergic reactions or asthma attacks. This is characterised by shortness of breath, wheezing, congestion and throat irritation. Furthermore, extended exposure to mould can exacerbate existing respiratory problems, like bronchitis, leading to more severe health complications. Aspergillosis is one such fungal infection caused by mould exposure. This type of mould is present in soil and decaying matter. Once inhaled, the Aspergillus spores can cause a range of respiratory conditions which include mild allergic reactions to serious lung infections. People with a weakened immune system are particularly high risk.
- Adenovirus infection. This type of contagious virus can lead to the common cold, bronchitis or pneumonia. It can also cause secondary infections, like gastroenteritis, urinary tract infections and conjunctivitis. Contaminated floodwater can carry this virus and infect those who come into contact with it.
- Tuberculosis (TB). In some extreme cases, overcrowded post-flood conditions could spread the highly contagious Mycobacterium tuberculosis virus. This serious respiratory infection affects the lungs and other parts of the body. Active TB includes difficulty breathing, chest pain, persistent cough, high fever, fatigue and weight loss.
Post-flood cleanup & safety tips
Given the serious health risk associated with floodwater, it’s essential to take precautions to minimise one’s risk of infection. Here are some of the best tips to apply for the prevention of flood diseases and infections:
- Avoid direct contact, if possible. Stay out of floodwaters altogether, if you are able to do so as this is the best way to avoid exposure to contaminants and pathogens.
- Use personal protective equipment (PPE). If you must expose yourself to floodwater, it’s advisable to use gear that will reduce your risk of infection, like wearing a facemask, boots and gloves.
- Practice good hygiene. If you’ve come into contact with floodwater, make sure you sanitise properly. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap, in clean warm water before you touch other people or interact with food. Wipe down surfaces using a household disinfectant to avoid contamination.
- Drink safe water. It’s advisable to drink bottled water in the aftermath of a flood. Floodwater carries waterborne diseases and poses a serious health risk if ingested.
- Keep indoor surroundings dry. Extended damp conditions lead to mould and mildew growth, causing infection. Try to dry areas out using proper ventilation or a humidifier.
- Keep up to date with vaccinations. The annual flu vaccine, for instance, can help reduce your risk of developing influenza.
- Seek safe shelter. Unfortunately, sometimes our homes are the worst and most dangerous places to be given contaminated floodwater. If necessary, it’s advisable to evacuate to a safe area and find alternative shelter. In many cases, local public health authorities will provide temporary facilities for affected communities.
- Keep medication, first-aid and emergency kits in your home. Having these items will come in handy as you may not have access to medical facilities or pharmacies.
- Stay informed. Local officials and public health authorities will provide resources about recommended safety measures and precautions.
Discover more about what to do during and after a flood to ensure your safety.
Healthcare cover with in-hospital and emergency benefits
Bloom and Momentum Health4Me prioritise your safety. Keep safe during a flood by following our safety tips to ensure respiratory health and avoid infections. Get healthcare coverage with Bloom which will ensure you have access to top-quality in-hospital and emergency medical benefits if and when you need it. Contact our team of trained consultants to discuss your health insurance, gap and medical aid cover options.
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