Staying safe when the lights go out

People stock up on supplies in New York as Hurricane Sandy approaches on October 28, 2012.

Story highlights

  • Power outages can pose safety challenges for medication and food
  • Those using breathing machines should have a backup power source
  • It's possible to make meals without power or refrigeration, experts say

Water jugs and batteries are not the only things to consider when extreme weather threatens.

Power outages and evacuations can pose safety issues, especially for those managing chronic illnesses.

Here are some tips to stay healthy when the lights go out:

Managing your medications

The elderly and chronically ill need to take note of their medications when the power goes out.

Insulin and some liquid medications may require cooling, says Dr. David Seaburg, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians. In warm weather, lunch bags containing a cool pack are a good option for those products.

For those facing evacuation, it's important to have a record -- either a piece of paper or a computer accessible file -- with the names and dosage information of your prescription drugs. Ideally, it should be prepared in advance.

For diabetics, a supply of snacks is essential, along with insulin and any other medications, says Dr. David Ross, a Colorado Springs, Colorado, emergency physician who assisted victims of a wildfire last summer.

Food safety during emergencies
Food safety during emergencies


    Food safety during emergencies


Food safety during emergencies 01:14

Ross also suggests that people have an emergency one-month supply of prescription medications, so they will not be caught short-handed.

And Seaburg adds, "If you have a chronic illness or take prescription medications and you are evacuated or choose to go to a community center, make someone aware that you have a medical condition, so they will know what to check for if your behavior seems a little unusual."

Gadgets to help you survive a power outage

Breathing easy

Another consideration during a loss of power is for patients with chronic breathing problems.

People who require continuous positive airway pressure, or CPAP, devices for sleep apnea or other sleep issues will need an alternative source of power. There are options available for most machines, including CPAP battery packs, DC power options, marine battery adapters and travel-specific CPAP machines to provide power in the event of an electrical outage.

Chowing down

Keeping food at a healthy temperature may be a challenge during a power loss.

Refrigerators keep dairy products, meat, fish, poultry and eggs at a healthy temperature if they are 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. If your power goes out, your refrigerator will stay at the proper temperature for about four hours if it's unopened. Placing ice bags or dry ice will help to maintain healthy cooling.

A full freezer will remain cool for about 48 hours, or for about 24 hours if half full. It's a good idea to have digital thermometers on hand to check the temperature.

Once the thermometer goes above the recommended temperature, avoid eating any dairy products, meat, fish, poultry or eggs. Throw away items that have been compromised.

The USDA suggests keeping a supply of canned and packaged foods that do not require refrigeration. Coolers are a good solution if your power will be on within 24 hours. And knowing where to purchase ice and dry ice is a good way to plan for an emergency.

Disaster dining: Stay safe, fed, caffeinated and entertained

Meal ideas

The Mayo Clinic suggests stocking up on condiments, particularly those that are vinegar-based and have a long shelf life, such as ketchup, mustard and soy sauce.

Keep canned protein such as chicken, salmon, beans and peanut butter on hand, the clinic recommends, and keep boxes of powdered milk or shelf-stable milk cartons handy. Also, don't forget a manual can opener.

Eating out of a can doesn't have to be boring, says Ron Stone, assistant director of nutrition at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.

"There are many options to mix and match from your pantry, and with advance planning and a little creativity, you can provide healthy and delicious meals for your family," Stone says.

Clinic interns have created sample three-day meal plans (PDF) to feed a family of four without the use of power or refrigeration, including desserts and energy bars.

Keep a hurricane preparation checklist