You're not fully prepared for a natural disaster if you neglect to review your family's medical needs. Here's the essential information you need to protect your family’s health.

By Natasha Persaud

Following Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, everyone recognized the need to keep supplies, have an action plan and stay informed in the event of a disaster. Among your preparations, Thomas D. Kirsch, M.D., a member of the American Red Cross Advisory Council on First Aid, Aquatics, Safety and Preparedness and an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, offers these tips on preparing your family medically for a natural disaster.

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Keep a 30-day supply of prescription medications on hand in their original containers.

“Forty percent of people in the area affected by Hurricane Katrina didn’t have medications with them when they evacuated, and had no immediate way to get refills,” says Dr. Kirsch. “You have to assume that following any disaster, you’re on your own for at least three days.” Since it may take several days for pharmacies to open or to be seen by a healthcare provider, keep extra medication with you—and in their original containers.

“In an emergency, you want to grab all your prescription bottles—even the empty ones. Prescription bottles give your doctor and pharmacist tremendous information about what drugs you’re taking, what drug interactions to avoid, what medical conditions you may have and how to treat those problems.”

Store medication in a single location.

Since few medications require refrigeration or special storage, it’s possible to keep most medication together in, a plastic container or tote bag. That way, they’re easy to grab in an emergency. “I don’t recommend storing prescription medication separately in a disaster kit,” says Dr. Kirsch. “You tend to forget to change those medications regularly, and medications may expire.”

Don’t forget your other medical supplies.

You may need or want other medical supplies with you in the event of a disaster; for example,

  • glucose test strips and lancets for those with diabetes
  • antihistamines for family members with allergies
  • antidiarrhea medication
  • antacids, and more.
  • If you wear contact lenses, you’ll want to have several extra pairs, along with cleansing solution and eye drops.

Gather personal medical documents.

Along with other important documents, such as the deed to your home, you also want to carry your

  • health insurance card
  • a medical history for each member of your family and immunization records
  • a list of current medications and contact information for your healthcare providers and local hospitals.

A medical history should include medical conditions, surgeries, immunizations, medications and allergies.

Stock Your First Aid Kit:

According to the American Red Cross, a basic first kit for a family of four should contain at the minimum:

  • 2 absorbent compress dressings (5 x 9 inches)
  • 25 adhesive bandages (assorted sizes)
  • 1 adhesive cloth tape (10 yards x 1 inch)
  • 5 antibiotic ointment packets (approximately 1 gram)
  • 5 antiseptic wipe packets
  • 2 packets of aspirin (81 mg each)
  • 1 blanket (space blanket)
  • 1 breathing barrier (with one-way valve)
  • 1 instant cold compress
  • 2 pair of nonlatex gloves (size: large)
  • 2 hydrocortisone ointment packets (approximately 1 gram each)
  • Scissors
  • 1 roller bandage (3 inches wide)
  • 1 roller bandage (4 inches wide)
  • 5 sterile gauze pads (3 x 3 inches)
  • 5 sterile gauze pads (4 x 4 inches)
  • Oral thermometer (non-mercury/nonglass)
  • 2 triangular bandages
  • Tweezers
  • First aid instruction booklet

“These supplies can help treat small and large cuts and scrapes, minor swelling, skin irritation and sprains,” explains Dr. Kirsch.

Keep over-the-counter ibuprofen and acetaminophen in your first aid kit too—including chewable tablets for children.

“Acetaminophen and ibuprofen are good for both pain management and reducing fever,” says Dr. Kirsch. “Also have low-dose aspirin on hand, for those already taking aspirin, to help prevent a heart attack or stroke.” Aspirin should not be used to relieve flu symptoms or be given to children.

Get trained in first aid.

“Following a disaster, the healthcare system may be entirely overwhelmed. Unless you have a life-threatening emergency, you and your family probably won’t receive prompt medical attention,” says Dr. Kirsch. “During Hurricane Katrina, many people were standing in long lines for hours at hospitals waiting for basic care.”

Every household should keep a first aid manual along with their first aid kit. Even better, plan to take first aid and CPR/AED classes in the near future. Learning first aid gives you skills and peace of mind that you can help your family when needed. (Editor's note: Classes and manuals are available through the American Red Cross for a fee.) It's also helpful to have a good first aid app on your mobile phone or device that can be accessed in a pinch.

The most common healthcare needs following a hurricane include minor injuries, such as

  • cuts, scrapes, bruises and sprains
  • respiratory illnesses, such as a cold and cough
  • and diarrhea-related illnesses, particularly after flooding.

“Unless someone has shortness of breath, rapid breathing, chest tightness or chest pain, a respiratory illnesses can usually be treated at home,” says Dr Kirsch. “To treat diarrhea, go on a liquid diet and avoid fatty foods; your body almost always will recover from diarrhea on its own—as long as you keep from becoming dehydrated.”

“In summary, disaster planning is a bit different than planning for an emergency,” says Dr. Kirsch. “In a disaster, 911 services may not be accessible, so your most important defense is preparation. The American Red Cross has helpful tips on assembling a disaster supplies kit, forming an evacuation plan with your family and caring for pets, seniors, children and people with disabilities.” Check out the helpful downloads below from the American Red Cross and other organizations.

Disaster Readiness

Use these helpful booklets, checklists and forms to help you prepare.

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 30 Apr 2009

Last Modified: 17 Sep 2015