Managing a Chronic Illness During a Disaster
Managing a Chronic Illness During a Disaster Surviving a natural or man-made disaster is no small thing, especially for those who have a chronic illness.

During a disaster access to health care, personal support and medication are lessened. This leaves people with chronic medical conditions at risk for serious medical complications—even to the point of death.

What is a chronic illness?

A chronic illness is a medical problem that lasts a year or longer, limits what a person can do, and calls for ongoing care. More than 90 million Americans live with some form of chronic illness. Examples of common chronic illnesses include:

  • diabetes
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • heart disease
  • chronic pain syndromes
  • inflammatory diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis

Prepare for an emergency

Because we seldom know when disaster will strike, it is important for those with chronic conditions and their caregivers to make specific plans and arrangements. Here are some tips to help you plan for and manage a chronic medical condition during a disaster.

  1. Let your family, friends, and others in your support network know of your condition and how to help you in an emergency. Be specific. Get commitments from others to help in an actual emergency.
  2. Pack an emergency kit. Have a bag that is readily available that contains:
    • an identification and medical information card with your name, address, phone number, insurance information, physicians' contact information and emergency contact person
    • a list of your specific illnesses and medications. The list should also include information about dosages and any allergies you may have.
    • an adequate supply of your medications—at least a week's supply if possible
    • any special equipment you require, for example, portable oxygen canisters
    • your personal hygiene products
    • special foods or supplements as required by your condition
  3. Talk to your doctors about emergency medical plans. Ask specific questions about your medical care and what you should do if disaster strikes and your doctor cannot care for you.
  4. If you need regular treatments, determine who could provide this for you if the clinic or health professional is not available. In some cases a family member can learn how to give medications and treatments during an emergency. For example, some patients with lung disease require breathing treatments that are usually performed by a respiratory therapist but can be easily learned by a nonprofessional. In the case of more complicated treatment, contact the local or neighboring hospital emergency department to arrange treatment during an emergency.
  5. If you are not able to walk, be sure to notify the local authorities and disaster response agencies, such as the Red Cross. Give them specific information about your condition so that disaster workers know how to contact you, and let you know about their disaster, rescue and evacuation procedures. Let them know of any special needs you have.
  6. Plan where you will go and which health care providers will care for you if you have to leave your community. Your doctor can advise you of clinics and specialists in other communities.
  7. In the event of a disaster, don't panic. Simply carry out your plans and keep your wits about you. Use your energy to stay focused on the solution, not the problem.

Planning is the single best thing you can do to prepare for an emergency. Seeking the wisdom and support of your family and friends in preparing for disaster and making emergency plans is time well spent.


S. Cohen, K. Mulvaney: Field Observations: Disaster Medical Assistance Team Response for Hurricane Charley, Punta Gorda, Fla., August 2004. Disaster Management & Response, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp 22-27.

National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

By Drew Edwards, EdD
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