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How to take medicines safely in a natural disaster (bushfire, floods, cyclones)

Blog post | 04 Jul 2022

New South Wales

If you're affected by the floods in NSW and need advice, visit the NSW floods — information and support services website.

For more information on disaster and emergency response in the region, visit this page on the NSW SES site or call on 132 500.

For health information and advice, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222.

Almost 9 out of 10 Australian adults use some form of medication, with nearly 300 million prescriptions written each year.

So when a natural disaster strikes — such as a bushfire, floods or cyclones — the way people manage their medicines and medical devices is a very big deal.

Some people with diabetes can't survive without insulin, for example, while many people with asthma or COPD rely on salbutamol. Then there are antiepileptic medications, antidepressants, hormonal contraception, statins, ACE inhibitors, metformin and many more. You could fill a filing cabinet with the list of medicines that are essential to millions of Australians.

Here are some key tips to remember if you, or someone in your family, depend on medicines and are faced with a natural disaster.

Plan to take your medicines with you

If there's time and it's safe to do so, pack your medicines, prescriptions, healthcare cards (for example, your Medicare card) and your doctor’s contact details — but do not grab them if it puts you in danger. Consider storing your medicines and health information on the NPS MedicineWise app.

Since a natural disaster can panic even the calmest person, it pays to have a pre-prepared emergency survival plan, such as the Red Cross RediPlan. Sit down with the people in your household to plan for an emergency well before disaster strikes.

If you have diabetes, you can also create an emergency plan here. Share your plan with your family or neighbours, particularly if you're mobility impaired.

Keep refrigerated medicines cold

Some medicines need to be stored in a fridge (between 2 to 8 degrees Celsius), including:

  • vaccines
  • insulin
  • levothyroxine
  • immune therapies
  • some eye drops
  • some hormone-based medicines
  • some antibiotic medicines for children

If your medicines are normally refrigerated and have been unrefrigerated for a while, they should be discarded and replaced with a new supply. However, if the medicine is essential to your health (for example, insulin), you can continue to use it until a new supply is available.

Medicines contaminated by floodwater

Throw out any medicines that have been contaminated by floodwater. Food, liquids or medicines that have come into contact with contaminated floodwater can make you ill.

Floodwater is often polluted by sewage or agricultural and industrial wastes and chemicals. Contaminated water and mud can increase the risk of infections such as such as leptospirosis, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, and ear, nose and throat infections.

How to get medicines without a prescription

So, if you don't have your medicines or can't take them because they've been compromised, what do you do?

  • If you don't have a prescription, you can call your GP or doctor and ask them to send your prescription to a pharmacist near you.

  • If you don't have a prescription and you can't contact your doctor, a pharmacist may be able to give you a 3-day supply of medication. This applies if you have been affected by a natural disaster and the pharmacist believes you are in urgent need of that medication.

Where to go for help

  • If you are concerned about the safety of your medicine, contact your pharmacist or doctor.

  • You can also call the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) or the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

  • Need to find a GP or pharmacist urgently? Use the healthdirect Service Finder.

  • For urgent assistance with getting your medicine in an emergency situation, contact the State Emergency Services (SES) on 132 500.

  • If you need to replace a Medicare card, call 13 20 11.

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