Staying Healthy Post Hurricane Harvey

As Texans begin to restore and rebuild following one of the most devastating storms in US history, we thought it would be a good time to talk about some of the health concerns that exist in this post flood environment and precautions everyone can take to stay healthy.

Harmful Elements in Flood Waters                                     Healthy Post Hurricane Harvey

Flood waters contain a variety of potentially harmful elements, many of which linger even after water begins to recede.  Aside from sheets of fire ants, snakes and other potential harmful critters, sharp metal bits, nails and glass shards are often prevalent and linger in debris.

In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, explained that sewage systems merge with flooding rain, introducing infectious human waste to streets and into flooded homes. What remains as sludge and a dirty film permeates everything it once washed over.  While the waters recede, the infectious elements remain and must be treated with caution (1).

And while it is not easy to predict which microbes will cause the greatest problems, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported 30 cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staphylococcus bacterium, in a group of New Orleans evacuees following Hurricane Katrina in September 2005. “Vibrio” pathogens, also known as “flesh-eating” bacteria, sickened two dozen people and killed six – in addition to reports of heat and infection-related skin rashes and red marks associated with biting mites (2).

Other Post Storm Concerns                                                                                             

The harmful material contained in flood waters and the contaminated and dangerous debris left in its wake are common concerns following a flooding storm (3), but there are also other lesser known concerns and areas of caution.  These include:

Scientific research is increasingly reporting the significant role that stress plays in our overall health – from a weakened immune system predisposing us to a host of illnesses, to increased risk of musculoskeletal injuries and conditions traditionally associated with physical stress only.  The type of stress that can come with the anticipation of such a storm, its duration and damaging aftermath is capable of threatening the health of an individual in ways many may not realize.  Referred to as “psychosocial” factors (frustration, dissatisfaction, depression and despair), the resulting stress has shown to induce physiological responses that can contribute to the development of musculoskeletal disorders (4).

Additionally, food and water quality that is compromised during power outages can challenge the healthiest among us if not approached with caution (5). Upper respiratory disorders associated with the rapidly growing mold following a Texas flood are a big concern.  Exposure to mold spores can prompt a rise in asthma and other respiratory illnesses.  The close proximity of individuals housed in shelters or working shoulder to shoulder in cleanup efforts can perpetuate respiratory illnesses and other communicable diseases.

Cuts and lacerations resulting from and/or exposed to flooded debris are particularly concerning to physicians.  The skin is the largest organ of the human body and should be protected as such.  Any opening creates vulnerability to not only the affected area but the entire body, particularly when exposed to potentially harmful microbes often found in flood water and debris as described earlier.

Reducing Risks and Staying Healthy Post Hurricane Harvey

There are several precautions that flood victims and those helping in their recovery should do to ensure everyone stays healthy post Hurricane Harvey.  These include:

 

  • Tetanus booster shots – Texas health officials urge people post Hurricane Harvey to get a tetanus booster shot to protect themselves against disease potentially entering the body through cuts/lacerations, unless one is current with their tetanus immunization (within 10 years). Even seemingly insignificant damage to a nail bed or cuticle should be treated as any other cut.
  • Proper garments and supplies – Clothing protecting arms and legs from flood sludge and lingering debris is strongly encouraged, along with rugged gloves for debris removal, rubber gloves for cleaning affected areas/items and face masks to minimize inhalation of potentially harmful elements.
  • Proper care of cuts/lacerations/skin rash – It is extremely important when working in flood environments to properly protect existing cuts and quickly clean and care for those occurring during cleanup. Risk of skin rashes resulting from the combination of sewage, chemicals and Houston heat can be reduced with the proper garments.
  • Adequate rest, relaxation – While it is difficult for those working to rebuild their homes and quickly reclaim their lives to contemplate taking time for themselves, it is a critical part of maintaining health and well-being. The rebuilding process for many will be a lengthy one requiring strong, healthy individuals.  Adequate rest, break from exposure to irritants and moments of relaxation/destressing can reduce risk of fatigue-related accidents/injuries, optimize mental outlook and maximize physical endurance.

 

When an injury is sustained or a respiratory or gastrointestinal irritation seems to linger, it is important to see a physician.  Postponing care can in some cases complicate an otherwise simple treatment or solution – and delay all recovery efforts.
Our health is truly one of our greatest assets. Let’s protect it!

 

 

References:

  1. The Health Dangers from Hurricane Harvey’s Floods and Houston’s Chemical Plants. Washington Post, September 1 2017.
  2. Infectious Disease and Dermatologic Conditions in Evacuees and Rescue Workers after Hurricane Katrina – Multiple States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). August – September, 2005.
  3. Stay Out of Flood Water, Texas Health Officials Urge. NPR – Houston Public Media News. August 28, 2017.
  4. Musculoskeletal Disorders – Psychosocial Factors. Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS). Last updated August 13, 2012.
  5. Food and Water Safety during Power Outages and Floods. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. FDA U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Last updated August 25, 2017.

 

Other Educational Links

 

 

What Spring and Summer Mean to Our Musculoskeletal Health

Spring has finally arrived and time isn’t the only thing jumping forward.  Our enthusiasm for the outdoors is renewed and our activity schedule is ramped up.  From the slopes to spring sports, new plantings and training for one of the biggest bike rides in Texas, the potential for overuse injuries is particularly high this time of year – following less active winter months.

Some of the musculoskeletal injuries and conditions most commonly seen in the spring and summer months include:

  • Skier’s Thumb
  • Friction Blisters
  • Allergy-Related Muscle Fatigue / Joint Pain
  • Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
  • Golfer’s Elbow

Skier’s Thumb

Though the skies and poles are packed away, signs of a common injury following an active ski season may linger a bit longer.  Skier’s thumb, also known as Texter’s Thumb skiers-thumb gardening cycling MLB: Oakland Athletics at Chicago White Sox golfing tennisamong millennials, refers to injury of the unlar collateral ligament (UCL) of the thumb’s metacarpal phalangeal (MP) joint.  This occurs when the abnormal pulling of the thumb, such as that from a fall or harsh pull while affixed to the ski pole/hoop, causes a forced abduction or hyperextension of the proximal phalanx of the thumb. If unaddressed, this injury is further exacerbated by the repetitive use of the injured thumb in texting.

Friction Blisters

While the most common concerns during baseball season include pitch count and the stress that excessive pitching and throwing has on a player’s elbow and shoulder over the course of a baseball season, these generally occur mid to late season following many practices and games.

A lesser known injury often occurs as the season gets started and impacts pitchers in particular – friction blisters.   The repeated trauma created between the baseball seams and the fingers of the pitching hand, predominately at the tips of the index and long fingers, can result in friction blisters.

Friction blisters, which are the result of repetitive friction and strain forces that develop between the skin and various objects, are also common this time of year among those increasing gardening efforts and tennis players hitting the court.

Friction blisters form in areas where the “stratum corneum” and “stratum granulosum” are sufficiently robust such as the palmar and plantar surfaces of the hands and feet [1].

 

Allergy-Related Muscle Fatigue / Joint Pain

With the vibrant colors of spring come seasonal allergies and a host of symptoms that can sometimes make involvement in many of these long-awaited activities a challenge.  While pollen allergies most commonly cause nasal congestion, a runny nose, a sore/scratchy throat and itchy eyes, they can also cause hives, itchy skin, chronic cough, mood changes and body aches/muscle and joint pain. After exposure to pollen, the body reacts to it as a foreign invader by releasing antibodies and natural chemicals called histamines. Histamine is a substance that causes inflammation in the body. Sometimes allergies can advance to bronchitis and mimic flu-like symptoms, including a low-grade fever, body aches and muscle fatigue which can make everyday activity and exercise more challenging if unaddressed. Continuing to train or play while the body fights to overcome allergy challenges can predispose the musculoskeletal system to injury.

 Carpal Tunnel Syndrome

Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (CTS) is one of the most common overuse conditions seen in hand and upper extremity orthopedic care.  In the spring and summer, it is often the result of new activity excessively engaging the hand and wrist such as gardening and cycling. It is generally the result of irritation and swelling, which causes compression within the narrow carpal tunnel located at the wrist – through which one of the major nerves in the arm, the median nerve, passes.  This nerve becomes irritated in the compressed tunnel and can cause numbness, pain, tingling and weakness in the thumb, index and middle fingers.  CTS can come on quickly and command attention or linger with varying degrees of pain that becomes gradually more intense over time.

Another hand and wrist condition, Handlebar Palsy, also known medically as ulnar neuropathy, is an overuse or repetitive stress condition that affects cyclists, though generally after completion of a long, competitive ride.  It is the result of direct pressure placed on the ulnar nerve at the hand and wrist – from the grip of a cyclist’s hands on handlebars, causing stretching or hyperextension of the nerve.

 

Golfer’s Elbow

While the greens are rarely bare in Houston, golfing tournaments really ramp up in the spring and so too do one of the most common overuse conditions associated with the sport – Golfer’s Elbow.  Also known as medial epicondylitis, Golfer’s Elbow affects the muscles and tendons on the inside (medial) portion of the elbow. The repeated activity of swinging the golf club places strain on the elbow, irritating and inflaming the tendons and muscles at the elbow joint.  This inflammation can cause pain on the inside of the elbow, as well as in the forearm and wrist.

 Preventing Injury

Easing into new activity gradually and preparing appropriately can reduce risk of overuse injuries and conditions.  Strengthening muscle groups equally and stretching sufficiently both before and after activity are key, particularly after less active winter months.

Ensuring proper equipment (cycling and other ergonomic gloves and tools) and products (moisturizing to reduce calluses and blister risk) can protect the parts of the body most vulnerable to some of these spring activities and sports. Behavior/activity modification can also help to distribute stress to different parts of the body, reducing repetitive impact on one particular area.

While allergies are often unavoidable, antihistamines and corticosteroids can reduce symptoms and improve performance.  Understanding the associated muscle fatigue and joint pain will help you modify activity accordingly to avoid injury.

Periodically resting and refraining from the activity causing pain can help restore limb strength and prevent more serious injury or damage to the affected area.

 References

[1] McNamara AR, Ensell S, Farley TD. Hand Blisters in Major League Baseball Pitchers: Current Concepts and Management. Am J Orthop. 2016 March;45(3):134-36.