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According to a recent study by Wells Fargo, about 84 percent of Americans live in areas that have experienced a natural disaster in the past three years.
Of those respondents, 54 percent describe those events — including tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, or wildfires — as severe. And 72 percent of the respondents reported that their lives had been affected by a natural disaster at some point.
The growing frequency of natural disasters is taking its toll on all of us. In just the first nine months of 2021, 538 Americans died due to weather disasters, according to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That number is double the number of deaths from disasters that occurred in 2020.
While we cannot predict when a natural disaster will strike, we can take steps to help prevent serious injury and death. This article will explore the common injuries people get in various natural disasters and how to treat them with basic first aid until you can get help.
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Hurricanes, Tornadoes, and Floods
The most common injuries that occur during and after a severe storm include:
- Infection from water that has been contaminated by sewage or toxic chemicals.
- Wound infection from sharp objects and flying or floating debris
- Injuries, cuts, scrapes, or broken bones from fallen trees, car accidents, or debris impact.
- Mosquito-borne infections from stagnant water.
For cuts and scrapes:
- Apply pressure to control bleeding.
- Wash your hands before treating the wound.
- Then wash the wound with clean water or soap and water.
- Apply antibiotic ointment.
- Cover the area with a clean bandage.
If you are not able to clean the wound, it is best to leave it uncovered. A covered unclean wound is more likely to become infected.
Examine the wound every 24 hours. Get medical help as soon as possible if the following signs of infection occur:
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Here is a video that shows basic first aid for treating a minor cut.
For broken bones, try to avoid moving the person if possible. Movement can cause further injury. Follow these steps while you wait for medical help:
- Stop any bleeding by applying pressure to the wound with a clean cloth or bandage.
- Immobilize the injured area. Do not try to push or realign a bone. You can apply a splint to the area above and below the injured site. Padding the splints can help reduce pain and discomfort.
- Wrap ice or an ice pack in a cloth before applying to the injured area to reduce pain and swelling.
- Watch out for signs of shock. If the person is breathing in short, rapid breaths or feels faint, help them to lie down with their head slightly lower than their torso and elevate their legs if you can.
This video demonstrates how to apply a leg splint in an emergency:
Severe Winter Weather
If you are stranded outside due to a blizzard or other winter weather-related emergency, the most common injuries that occur are frostbite and hypothermia.
Frostbite is a dangerous condition that affects the layers of the skin. There are three stages of frostbite that worsen in severity as the injury moves deeper into the body.
- In the first stage, skin becomes white or pale yellow, and the person feels a “pins and needles” sensation.
- In the intermediate stage, the skin appears shiny or waxy. Blisters filled with fluid or blood form, and pain occurs when the skin thaws.
- In the advanced stage of frostbite, the skin darkens and is hard and cold to the touch. The sensation often goes numb in the affected area.
Here are steps to treat frostbite:
- Get to a warm location as soon as symptoms occur. Do not rub the skin, or you could cause further damage.
- Instead, soak the affected hands or feet in warm water or place a cloth soaked with warm water on the affected areas for at least 30 minutes.
- As skin thaws, it may redden, and you may experience prickling sensations.
This video shares information on how to prevent and treat frostbite.
Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it can produce heat, causing your body temperature to fill and your body not to be able to function properly. Exposure to cold conditions or immersion in cold water can lead to hypothermia. Signs of hypothermia include:
- Slurred speech
- Slow, shallow breathing
- Weak pulse
- Lack of coordination
- Confusion or memory loss
Hypothermia can be fatal, and you should seek medical help if you can. In the meantime, here are some treatment steps to take:
- Move or shield the person from the cold and wind as much as possible.
- Carefully remove any wet clothing, avoiding any jarring movements.
- Cover the person with blankets, including their head, and leave only the face exposed.
- Monitor breathing. If the person stops breathing, begin CPR.
- If the person is alert enough to drink, offer them a warm beverage.
This video reviews how to treat hypothermia.
The most common injuries that occur during and after an earthquake include:
- Injuries due to falling objects
- Injuries due to building damage
- Head trauma
If someone has received a head injury, seek medical attention as soon as you can. In the meantime, here are some steps to take:
- Move the victim to a safer location
- Monitor the victim’s breathing and pulse rate
- Keep victim hydrated and warm
- Treat for shock by elevating the legs
- Contrary to advice of the past, you may allow the victim to sleep, but wake them every few hours to monitor their alertness level.
Disorientation or confusion should begin to return. If alertness does not return or worsens, seek medical attention.
A prolonged period of abnormally hot weather can be deadly. The most common injuries that occur during and after a heat wave include:
- Heat edema — Swelling of the hands, feet, and ankles
- Heat rash — A rash that is accompanied by acute inflammation and blocked sweat ducts.
- Heat cramps — Involuntary spasms of the large muscle groups
- Heat exhaustion — A condition marked by excessive dehydration and electrolyte depletion. Symptoms can include diarrhea, headache, nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.
- Heat stroke (hyperthermia) – A life-threatening condition in which the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the ability to sweat fails, and the body is unable to cool itself down.
Warning signs of heat stroke include:
- A core body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or above
- Altered mental state or behavior.
- A change in sweating. Heatstroke brought on by hot weather can cause your skin to feel hot and dry.
- Nausea and vomiting
- Flushed skin
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Racing heart rate
While waiting for medical help, take immediate steps to cool the overheated person down with whatever means is available. Possibilities include taking a cool shower, spraying with a garden hose, sponging with cool water, or placing ice packs or cold, wet pieces of cloth on the overheated person’s head, neck, armpits, and groin area.
This video discusses first aid intervention for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Dangerous and fast-spreading wildfires have become a common occurrence in much of the Western U.S. as well as many other parts of the world. The most common injuries that can occur during and after a wildfire include:
- Irritation to the skin, nose, and throat
- Injuries from debris
- Burns from smoldering materials.
- Burns and other injuries from fire
- Electrical hazards
- Rashes, infections, and exposures to toxic substances
In terms of burn care, it is important to recognize the four different stages of burns. First-degree burns are superficial, causing only pain and redness and pain. Second-degree burns cause blisters and swelling. With third-degree burns, the skin appears charred and white. Fourth-degree are deep, damaging the muscles, bones, and tendons below the skin.
After seeking medical help, here are the basic first aid steps for treating burns until it arrives.
- Remove restrictive items, like belts or jewelry, from the burned area.
- Do not peel off clothing that is stuck to burned skin. Leave it in place until help arrives.
- If possible, rinse the burned area for 10 minutes under cool water. Do not apply ice, butter, ointment, or sprays
- Cover the burn with a cool, moist bandage
- Elevate the burned area
- Watch for signs of shock, elevating the person’s legs if necessary
Having an emergency medical kit in your home and in your car can go a long way in allowing you to administer basic first aid during an emergency. You can purchase pre-assembled kits such as this emergency response bag, or you can assemble your own using this list of supplies for a family of four from the Red Cross.
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