Patient Focus: Medication Safety in Natural Disasters

Ready for disaster – checking off the items on the emergency preparedness form

With Hurricane Harvey recovery efforts on everyone’s mind – as well as September being National Emergency Preparedness Month – this feels like the right time to share information about how to keep prescription medications safe during a natural disaster.

Preparation begins, when possible, with planning ahead. When families gather bottled water and other essentials to keep on hand for a potential emergency, it’s easy to overlook prescription medications. Here are three important tips to help in emergency preparation:

  1. Make it a regular practice to refill medications as early as a prescription allows. This will ensure that you have at least three days’ worth of medications and related supplies on hand if a disaster strikes. In addition, most state laws allow for early refill of medications when a hurricane warning is announced. This “emergency prescription refill” law permits you to refill your prescribed medications if the county where you reside is currently under a hurricane warning issued by the National Weather Service or is in a declared a state of emergency by your state’s governor.
  1. Create and keep a medication list in your wallet (next to your prescription ID card and health insurance card), so you will be able to refer to it even if you have to evacuate.
  1. Store your medications together in one accessible location. This will make it easier to bring your prescription medications with you if you have to evacuate. If your medications are temperature-sensitive, keep a small cooler on hand (along with frozen gel packs in your freezer) to grab-and-go.

The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, which is part of the FDA, issues guidelines for medication management during a natural disaster. Medications can be affected by fire, flooding, unsafe water, or lack of refrigeration (if the medication is temperature-sensitive).

Flood water: Medications exposed to flood or unsafe municipal water can be contaminated, even if their screw-top caps, snap lids, or droppers are in place. It is recommended to discard and replace medications that contact flood water.

Fires: High temperatures can impair the effectiveness of medications. If your medications were in fire conditions, consider discarding and replacing them.

Power outage: Medications that require refrigeration can be impacted by power outages. Ideally, they would be discarded and replaced if the outage was for an extended period of time since the medication could lose potency. If the drug is essential, it can be used until a new supply can be obtained after the emergency conditions are resolved.

These guidelines, of course, adjust to emergency conditions. If a medication is needed in treatment of a life-threatening condition and a replacement is unable to be obtained due to the emergency, then choices become more limited. For example, if the medication appears unaffected (such as the outside container was wet, but the pills inside appear dry) then the medication can be used until replacement medication can be obtained.

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