Our home was flooded during severe weather. What should we do with food and medicines that got wet?

Answers from James M. Steckelberg, M.D.

After a flood, be cautious about handling food and medications that were exposed to flood or unsafe municipal water. They may be contaminated with toxins or germs that can cause illnesses, such as hepatitis or gastroenteritis.

Do not eat any food that may have come into contact with flood water. This includes food packed in plastic, paper and cardboard containers that have been water damaged. Discard food and beverage containers with screw caps, snap lids, crimped caps (soda bottles), twist caps or flip tops, and home-canned food if they have come into contact with flood water. These containers cannot be disinfected. If in doubt, throw it out.

Undamaged, commercially prepared food in all-metal cans or in packages used to seal food for long-term unrefrigerated storage (retort pouches) can be saved if you remove the labels, thoroughly wash and rinse the outside of the containers, and then disinfect them with a sanitizing solution of 1 tablespoon bleach to 1 gallon safe drinking water. Be sure to write the food and expiration date on the containers when you're done.

Any medications — pills, liquids, drugs for injection, inhalers or skin medications — that have come into contact with flood or contaminated water should be discarded. The exception to this is drugs that are lifesaving and not easily replaced.

In these cases, if the container is contaminated but the contents appear unaffected — for example, the pills are dry — the pills may be used until a replacement can be obtained. However, if a pill is wet or appears discolored from contact with water, it should be considered contaminated and be discarded.

Also keep in mind that if the electricity to your home was out, foods and medications stored in the refrigerator may be spoiled. As a general rule, an unopened refrigerator will keep food cold for about four hours. If the outage lasted longer than that or you're not sure how long the power was out, discard the contents of the refrigerator.

After a flood, contact your doctor or pharmacist immediately about getting replacement medications.

Oct. 10, 2014