Emergencies and natural disasters are a threat for everyone, and for people who need prescription medications to treat serious medical issues, the threat doesn’t stop once a pandemic subsides, the floods recede, or the fires go out.
If you take life-saving medication, or are a caregiver for someone who does, practicing effective emergency preparedness should be part of your care strategy.
What is emergency preparedness?
Emergency preparedness is the act of carrying out a few, well-known actions that increase your level of safety during a crisis.
Some emergencies are international news—like a hurricane approaching a major city. But not every emergency makes CNN. A family member can unexpectedly fall ill or a gas leak can require your whole block to evacuate.
What are the four phases of emergency preparedness?
These are the four phases of preparedness:
Whether you know it or not, you and everyone in your community are in one or more of these phases right now.
The mitigation phase involves activities that limit the damage an emergency could cause. For example, removing dry branches around a property could prevent a brush fire from reaching the home.
The preparedness phase is training for events that can’t be mitigated. An out-of-control forest fire may require homeowners to evacuate no matter how thorough their prevention efforts. Activities may include creating an emergency kit or go bag.
The response phase consists of actions taken during and immediately after the emergency. A parent evacuating their family as a fire approaches is an example of response phase activity.
The recovery phase begins once life gets (mostly) back to normal. Life and property are no longer threatened and schools and businesses have started to reopen. Now the focus turns to repairing physical, financial, and emotional damage caused by the emergency. Recovery includes determining how to limit the damage from future, similar emergencies and restarts the mitigation phase.
What kind of emergencies should you prepare for?
Based on where you live, some emergencies are more likely than others. Understanding the risks in your area can guide your thinking as you develop an emergency or natural disaster preparedness plan.
Emergency planners categorize disasters into three categories.
- Minor emergencies (e.g., a residential house fire)
- Limited and potential emergencies (e.g., localized flooding)
- Major disasters (e.g., an earthquake)
Every community is subject to different hazards, and every adult has different responsibilities. A single pet owner living in a floodplain will make different preparation plans than a mother of five in a major city prone to earthquakes.
Consider which emergencies are most likely in your area, and what would be required of you in every case.
Using medications during an emergency
Considering your medication needs during an emergency could be a life-or-death decision. Everyone who requires medication should consider how they would maintain their supply during the types of emergencies they are most likely to experience.
The preparedness phase is the most important one to think about to ensure access to medication. What would you do in case of an unexpected disaster you can’t mitigate like a strong earthquake or 100-year flood? These are some things to consider.
Keep an up-to-date list of medications including dose and indicated use
Emergencies are stressful times, and you don’t want to rely on memory if you need to replace medications for yourself or the people who need them. What if you need a pill you’ve been taking for years and you’re incapacitated? Will a search and rescue team know what medication you need?
Know how much medication is on hand
Maintain a calendar or medication app that shows when your medication will run out. This will help you remember to order refills and provide a quick reference in case of an emergency. You’ll be able to see just how large your supply is, and if you have advance warning of an impending emergency that could disrupt access to your pharmacy, you’ll know whether you need to quickly obtain early refills.
Place medication bottles or packages in water-tight containers
Medicine storage containers can take many forms from a large stack of drawers in a hospital to a simple plastic pill box. If heavy rain or flooding is a hazard for your community, consider storing your medications in a water-tight container like a plastic food storage bin.
If flood water comes into contact with your medications, it’s strongly recommended that you not use them unless absolutely necessary.
Have a cooler available for medications that need refrigeration
Natural disasters like forest fires, earthquakes, and hurricanes can take the power grid offline. If your refrigerator stopped working, how would you keep your medication cold? Anyone who takes refrigerated medications should keep a small portable cooler on hand. Gel travel coolers are less messy (though ice will work, too).
For insulin medication used to treat high blood glucose associated with diabetes, refrigeration is recommended but not absolutely necessary. Insulin can be left unrefrigerated for up to 28 days, as long as the temperature stays between 59 and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. If you live in an area with extreme temperatures, consider how you would keep your insulin within this temperature range in case of an evacuation. A cooler can be used to keep insulin safe. Insulin isn’t dangerous to take if exposed to extreme temperatures, it simply loses effectiveness. Since insulin is a life-sustaining drug for diabetes type 1 patients, keeping insulin supplies at optimum temperature is important. Follow the FDA recommendations for insulin usage in an emergency, and see this insulin storage chart for information about specific products.
As part of your emergency preparation plan, ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your medications require refrigeration.
Here’s a list of common prescription medications that must stay refrigerated.
- All the insulins
This is not a comprehensive list, please check with your pharmacist for your medications that may need refrigeration.
How do you get medication in an emergency situation?
Any pharmacy can supply emergency fills of certain critical medications when the patient has an immediate therapeutic need. Examples include antibiotics, insulin, and rescue inhalants.
As you consider how emergency fills fit into your emergency preparedness plan, be aware of these restrictions:
- You must have a prescription to get an emergency fill.
- Emergency fills are (at most) only a seven-day supply.
- You must pay the full cost of the medication upfront at the pharmacy, and apply for full or partial reimbursement later. The amount of your reimbursement will depend on your plan.
- With many health plans, if you go to an out-of-network pharmacy, you will not be reimbursed.
Additional rules around emergency fills (including which specific medications are allowed) vary depending on your health insurance plan.
For medications that are not considered emergency fills, you won’t be able to get a refill until you’re able to contact your health provider.
Basic medications, like pain relievers, may be available at shelters or delivered by emergency management authorities.
What is a first aid kit?
A first aid kit is a collection of supplies that can be used to mitigate health issues until professional medical attention is available. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that families have an emergency kit that should include both first aid supplies and nonmedical supplies.
What should be in a first aid kit?
The Red Cross recommends these items for a first aid kit:
- Absorbent compress dressings
- Adhesive bandages
- Adhesive cloth tape
- Antibiotic ointment packets
- Antiseptic wipe packets
- Aspirin (81 milligrams each)
- Emergency blanket
- Breathing barrier
- Instant cold compress
- Non-latex gloves
- Hydrocortisone ointment packets
- A gauze roll bandage
- Sterile gauze pad
- An oral thermometer
- Triangular bandages
- An emergency first aid instructional guide
And pet owners, don’t forget to make a pet first aid kit.
What should not be in a first aid kit?
Do not put anything in your first aid kit that could contaminate your supplies or otherwise render them unusable. One example: A glass mercury thermometer, which could break and spill a dangerous chemical and broken glass.
If you buy a pre-assembled first aid kit from a reputable source, you won’t need to worry about this risk.
What is a go bag?
A go bag is a collection of personal and medical items that will help you survive an emergency and recover faster from the effects. Your first aid kit (or go bag medicine kit) is just one component of a go bag.
The contents of your go bag will depend on your personal situation and where you store it.
The go bag in your home, where you have a lot of storage space, can be much bigger than the go bag at your office or in your car.
These are the general categories to consider:
- Personal sanitation and hygiene supplies
- Prescription medications and prescriptions
- Survival needs
- Communications devices and chargers
- Personal identity and financial documents
- Ways to keep kids occupied
Home go bags
The Department of Homeland Security recommends that your home emergency kit has enough supplies that you could survive for 72 hours in the event of an emergency.
The specific items you’ll need to meet that goal depends on the size of your family and where you live.
Take water, for instance. Your home emergency kit should have 3 gallons of water per person (a gallon per person per day) and perhaps more if you live in a very hot area.
What about food? A 3-day supply for a family with four teenagers will be a lot more than for a family with a 7-year-old. If you have a baby, your emergency kit must contain three days’ worth of baby formula.
Survival needs will differ. If you live in Vermont, three days of survival might require a constant heating source and heavy blankets. In Hawaii, one small emergency blanket might do.
Consider the type of emergency you’re likely to experience in your area. The CDC recommends specific supplies for people in earthquake-prone areas (e.g., heavy, durable gloves for cleaning up debris, and a tow rope to facilitate rescues). People in flood-prone areas may want to pay special attention to how they’ll keep supplies dry if they evacuate in standing water.
Car and workplace go bags
You won’t be able to store as many survival items in your car or at your workplace as you can in your home. But emergencies happen at any time, so you should consider what you’d want to have with you.
Again, your kit will depend on your situation. If your office is within walking distance from your home, you probably don’t need as extensive an emergency kit as you would if you commute 30 miles to work. If you rarely drive outside the city, you don’t need as many supplies as you would if you frequently find yourself on rural highways.
How to use an emergency preparedness plan template
Your state or other local government may also have templates specific to your area. This one for residents of Montgomery County, Maryland, includes community-specific information like utility company phone numbers and frequencies of local radio stations.
These emergency preparedness templates ask key questions about you and your family, and contain general guidelines that apply to everyone. Specific questions about prescription medication are among them.
Planning now ensures less confusion later
Practicing good emergency preparedness provides much needed certainty in the confusion of an emergency situation. Answers to questions like “how will I get my next dose of insulin?” will already be decided. Preparing now can prevent a dangerous health risk for you or your family.