Be sure to control insects and ensure your dog is protected against heartworm and (if there are rats around) leptospirosis.
Health risks remain after floodwater subsides
There a range of health issues to consider as a result of this summer's big wet. Some of which could also affect those living outside the worst-hit areas.
This summer Australia has experienced some of its worst flooding in several generations.
While the worst conditions have been in Queensland and Victoria, communities in New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania have also been affected.
And unfortunately for those who have been affected by the extreme weather, there are a range of health issues that are likely to continue long after the rain stops falling and the floodwaters recede.
Research suggests that over the next few months a range of physical and psychological health problems will continue to plague already devastated communities.
One recent study of flooded UK residents found 64 per cent felt the disaster had adversely affected their health, with stress, anxiety and depression the most common complaints. These people also reported physical ailments including dermatitis, worsening asthma, arthritis and chest infections.
And even those living in areas that haven't been directly affected by flooding could experience an increase in the incidence of mosquito-borne viruses or household mould, which can make some people quite ill.
The dirty water, mud and silt that floods bring into our homes, backyards, streets, parks and local playgrounds can cause a range of conditions, including diarrhoeal disease and skin and soft-tissue infections.
Dr Bernie Hudson, an infectious diseases physician at Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, says any cuts and scratches acquired in a flood-affected area should be cleaned immediately and covered to avoid infection.
You need to seek medical attention if any such cut becomes painful and red and if you develop a fever, he advises.
Floodwater and contaminated soil can also be a source of leptospirosis, caused by a pathogen found in rat urine, Hudson says.
These bacteria usually enter the body through small breaks in the skin, causing a flu-like illness that Queensland Health says should be treated with antibiotics as early as possible.
In northern Australia, the water and soil-borne bacterial disease meliodosis can also be a problem following flooding, Hudson says. Queensland Health says people have died from meliodosis after previous Queensland floods; those most at risk are people with diabetes, liver disease or any kind of immune suppression.
When you are cleaning up after a flood, be sure to thoroughly clean any part of your body that has been exposed to flood water, mud or silt. And make sure your immunisations – especially tetanus – are up-to-date.
The mud brought in by floodwaters also makes surfaces – such as footpaths, roads and floors – very slippery and falls are not unusual in flood clean-ups. Good shoes can help prevent falls as can using a walking pole (a broom stick does the job).
Public health physician Dr Robert Hall, a senior research fellow at Melbourne's Monash University, says it's essential people wear appropriate clothing when cleaning up areas affected by floods.
"You need to wear proper boots and shoes and have proper tools to do the job. All of those kinds of injury prevention things are really quite important," Dr Hall says.
A BMJ editorial from 2000 noted the number of orthopaedic injuries, such as broken bones, from flooding in the US state of North Carolina increased steadily over time, peaking several weeks after the disaster as people started to clean and repair their homes.
WA Health also offers this additional advice when cleaning up:
- Remember to wash your hands thoroughly after each clean-up session and always before eating or preparing food.
- Do not use petrol or diesel-powered equipment, such as generators or pumps, in enclosed spaces.
- Wear a mask when working with heavy mould.
- Be alert to snakes, spiders and rats that may have taken refuge in your home.
Go to Queensland Health's Disaster Management for a extensive information and advice on how to stay healthy after floods, storms and other natural disasters.
The stagnant water left behind by floods and rain also provides an excellent breeding ground for mosquitoes, increasing the risk of the mosquito-borne diseases such as Ross River virus and Barmah Forest virus.
Common symptoms of both diseases include joint pain and inflammation, as well as tiredness and muscle aches, public health authorities say.
And in north Queensland, recent rain from Cyclone Yasi could provide the perfect breeding ground for dengue mosquitoes.
The best way to stop the spread of mosquito-borne viruses is to stop mosquitoes breeding. Around your home you should empty or discard any containers that can hold water, such as pot plant drip trays, buckets, bottles, cans and tyres. You should also keep open drains and roof gutters clean and use mosquito-proof mesh to cover rainwater tank inlets and overflows.
To protect yourself from mosquito bites wear loose, light-coloured clothing, use insect repellent and stay indoors behind screens when mosquitoes are around. You should also consider repairing defective insect screens around the house and using insect spray to kill mosquitoes in the home.
The most effective mosquito repellents contain 20-50 per cent DEET, according to a recent literature review in the Journal of Travel Medicine. Preparations containing higher concentrations of picaridin or PMD – an active ingredient of lemon eucalyptus oil – are the next best choices.
Mould will also be an issue for many people after the recent rains, even those who have not been affected by floodwaters. It is also the scourge of many Australian homes year-round.
Mould in damp buildings can trigger nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, wheezing and respiratory infections. It can also worsen asthma and allergic conditions, Victoria's Department of Health says.
People most at risk include those with weakened immune systems, allergies, severe asthma and chronic, obstructive or allergic lung diseases.
But past experience suggests that widespread mould growth will not necessarily be bad news for your health, says Professor Connie Katelaris, professor of allergy and immunology at the University of Western Sydney and Campbelltown Hospital.
"[After Hurricane Katrina in the United States] mould was everywhere, houses were absolutely full of it, but miraculously and interestingly, very few clinical problems actually came from that," she says.
Nobody really knows why, but it's possible that the community was so stressed by the trauma of the hurricane, their stress hormones altered their reaction to the allergens, dampening their allergic response, she says.
Nevertheless, Katelaris says people with asthma and allergies should keep taking their medications as prescribed and follow asthma action plans, despite the disruption from the floods. Cleaning is the only way to remove mould from homes, Katelaris says.
Small areas of mould can be cleaned using a damp cloth and detergent solution, vinegar solution or alcohol solution, Victoria's Department of Health says. Mould treatments available in stores can bleach mould, but may not kill it.
It's also important to remove sources of moisture that are allowing mould to grow. After flooding, clean and disinfect all affected surfaces inside the house, including floors, walls, the kitchen, bathroom and laundry, the department advises.
For many the road to recovery will be an arduous one, but the evidence suggests there are things you can do to protect yourself from illness and injury along the way.