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Floodwaters

Floodwaters
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Health risks after a cyclone or flood

7-minute read

For emergency help in floods and storms, contact your state or territory emergency service (SES) on 132 500.

Floods and cyclones are a part of life in Australia. We've put together a list of some of the common health risks and hazards, and advice on how to avoid them.

The most common type of flooding is when rivers flood following heavy rainfall. Flooding due to very high tides occurs in coastal areas.

Flash flooding can result from relatively short, intense bursts of rainfall, commonly during thunderstorms, and can occur in any part of Australia. It can be a particularly serious problem in urban areas where drainage systems may not cope with the volume of water.

Cyclones occur seasonally. The official tropical cyclone season in the Australian region runs from November to April. Most cyclones occur in northwest Australia between Exmouth and Broome in Western Australia, coastal areas of the Northern Territory and in Queensland, from Maryborough all the way up the north-east coast.

Floods and cyclones can be associated with health risks that include injuries and infections. Here are some of the risks and how to protect yourself.

Contaminated floodwater

Contaminated floodwater and mud can carry an increased risk of wound infections, diarrhoea, conjunctivitis, ear, nose and throat infections and other infections such as leptospirosis. Food, liquids or medicines that have come into contact with contaminated floodwater can also make you ill.

Tips to help you stay safe:

  • Avoid walking or wading through floodwater and mud if you can because it may be contaminated by sewage and debris. This is particularly important for people prone to infections, including young children, pregnant women, the elderly and people with chronic diseases (such as diabetes and kidney disease), as well as people with alcohol or drug dependencies.
  • Avoid contact with any floodwater if you have broken skin or any wounds.
  • If you get any cuts, abrasions or other wounds clean them with clean water, and cover with a dressing. See your doctor if you have a cut or wound that becomes dirty, red or sore, or if it is deep.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water or a hand sanitiser after having contact with damaged material, floodwater or mud, before preparing or eating food, and when going to the toilet.
  • Throw out any medicines that may have had contact with floodwater.
  • Dispose of any food that has come into contact with floodwater, and any food that has perished.
  • Tinned food can be kept for use as long as the tin is not opened, bulging or damaged. Wash the tin, sanitise it in a bleach solution and use as quickly as possible.
  • Contact your local council to check whether the local water supply is contaminated. If in doubt, boil all drinking water before use.

Injuries from falls

Injuries from falls can occur when cleaning up after the flood or cyclone.

Tips to help you stay safe:

  • Seek assistance, for example from your state or territory emergency service (SES), if cleaning up after the flood or cyclone is too big a task for you to manage.
  • Consider using a walking pole, such as a broom handle, a stick or something similar to guide you safely around. Muddy surfaces can be very slippery and result in falls that can cause fractures and other injuries.

If you, or someone you are with, is injured in a fall:

  • Call Triple zero (000) if you lost consciousness (even briefly), are unable to get up, or are suffering severe pain. If Triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile phone, try 112.
  • Call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 and speak with a registered nurse if you are in pain, have a wound or other discomfort.

Snake and spider bites

Watch out for snakes or spiders that may have taken refuge in your house or among the debris after a flood or cyclone.

Tips to help you stay safe:

Snakes and spider bites are potentially life-threatening. If you are bitten by a snake or spider follow these steps:

  1. Call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile phone, try 112.
  2. Keep still.
  3. Do NOT wash, clean, suck or cut the bitten area.
  4. Apply a firm bandage (if you have one) along the full length of the affected arm or leg and immobilise the limb with a splint.
  5. If you do not have a bandage, apply direct pressure over the bitten area and immobilise with a splint.
  6. If you are bitten on the abdomen or torso, apply direct pressure over the bitten area and keep still.
  7. Do NOT remove the bandage or splint once it has been applied.
  8. Mark on the bandage where the bite occurred.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Mosquito-borne infections

Receding floodwaters and pooling water from heavy rainfall provide perfect conditions for mosquito breeding, potentially leading to outbreaks of mosquito-borne infections.

Tips to help you stay safe:

  • Use personal insect repellant. Repellants containing DEET or picardin are more effective than other repellants.
  • Use mosquito nets at night if possible.
  • Indoors, use flying insect spray, mosquito coils or plug-in insecticide devices.
  • Wear long, loose light-coloured clothing.
  • Repair or fit insect screens if required.
  • Remove debris and vegetation from storm drains and ditches to help prevent mosquitos from breeding.
  • Drain areas in and around yards and workplaces where water has accumulated.
  • Empty all containers weekly, including buckets, tyres, birdbaths and palm fronds, to reduce the number of places where mosquitoes can breed.
  • Check the integrity of water tank screens and replace them if required because mosquitoes can breed in domestic water tanks.

Weather-related risks

It's important to look after yourself, whatever the weather conditions.

Tips to help you stay safe:

  • Wear sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses to help protect yourself from sunburn.
  • Drink plenty of water if it's hot, even if you are not thirsty, and keep yourself cool in hot weather to help prevent dehydration and other heat-related conditions.
  • Keep warm if it is cold.

Carbon monoxide poisoning

You could experience carbon monoxide poisoning if you use a petrol-powered generator or pump in a confined space.

Tips to help you stay safe:

  • Ensure generators and pumps are situated in well-ventilated areas, preferably outside.

Take care when cleaning up

  • Take your time to clean up when it is all over. Remember to look after your health — take frequent breaks and drink plenty of fluids. Seek special advice from your local council about cleaning up asbestos and sanitising rainwater tanks.
  • Do not use swimming pools contaminated by floodwaters until the water has been tested and the pool has been thoroughly cleaned.
  • Be aware of fallen electricity wires, especially if they are immersed in water.
  • Be careful when operating chainsaws and other equipment for clearing vegetation. Wear protective clothing and do not handle the equipment if it's wet.

Resources and support

For emergency help in floods and storms, contact your state or territory emergency service (SES) on 132 500.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 to talk to a registered nurse, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

St John Ambulance Australia publishes comprehensive first aid fact sheets on their website.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

Contact your local council or your state or territory health authority for information specifically for your area:

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2021


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