Disaster Planning: Don't Forget Your Prescription Medications

prescription pill bottle

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Key Takeaways

  • Disasters, like the weather-related freeze and power outages in Texas, can leave people without access to their prescription medications.
  • Making a plan for what you'll do during a crisis can help minimize any issues related to getting prescriptions. The key is to know which medications you take, the doses you need, and why you take each drug.
  • Pharmacies can refill most prescriptions on an emergency basis during a disaster or crisis.

Disasters can affect any place, at any time. Just recently, Texas and other parts of the southern section of the United States were hit with severe winter weather and temperatures unlike anything residents had experienced before.

In any year, hurricanes and other extreme weather events can also leave people in crisis without safe water or electricity. But now, people are enduring natural disasters while also trying to avoid the ongoing crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you find yourself in a crisis, ensuring that your essential needs are covered can be overwhelming—especially if you need to evacuate quickly. Making a plan can help you avoid the in-the-moment stress of trying to figure out what you need, as well as plan for situations where the things that you need might not be readily available.

Managing Medication Needs During a Crisis

Health needs won't go on pause for a natural disaster. For people with medical conditions, one of the most pressing is the need for prescription medications.

If you're in an emergency situation and need to leave your home quickly—for your safety or to go somewhere like a warming center—it's easy to forget to take your medications along. Even if you stay at home, houses can be damaged by flooding or other extreme weather, and power outages can render medications that need refrigeration unusable.

Getting Emergency Refills

While the situation might feel hopeless, there is help. “Most insurance companies allow for that kind of a disaster situation," Whit Moose, RPh, owner of Moose Pharmacies (which runs eight pharmacies in North Carolina) tells Verywell.

Moose says that you can ask your local pharmacy for an emergency refill for most prescriptions—but they may not be able to fill any Schedule II drugs (like opiates).

If Your Local Pharmacy Is Unavailable

Of course, disasters can also knock out a pharmacy's power or even damage or destroy it. Still, Moose says that pharmacies should have an emergency plan in place for how they will power back up and resume operations.

“The pharmacist has to be able to get into the pharmacy and into its systems to dispense the medications,” Moose says.

If your pharmacy is unavailable or you've had to relocate during a crisis, you can also switch your prescription to another pharmacy. Small independent chains like Moose Pharmacies are interconnected and share records, which means that they can see what medications you take. The larger chains like Walgreens or CVS can access prescription records from any of their locations.

Can You Go Without Your Meds?

Lost or destroyed medications may mean that you need to skip doses. Moose says that for some people, skipping a day or a few days of medication might not have serious consequences, but it "greatly depends on the type of medication."

The best course of action is to ask your healthcare provider about what to do if you run out of your medication and are faced with the option of skipping a dose. Ideally, you should have this conversation before an emergency occurs.

Talk to your healthcare provider about what you should do if you skip a dose of your medications or run out in an emergency. Ask which of your medications should be your priority and which you can skip for a few days.

“Skipping on insulin is a more serious issue than skipping on something like a cholesterol drug,” Moose says. Insulin is also a medication that could easily be compromised in a crisis because it needs to be refrigerated—which would not be possible during a power outage.

“Generally, all of the insulin products are safe for a short period of time,” Moose says. “If the power is restored within a few days, the supply should be good, but think about replacing it.”

If clean drinking water is in short supply, some pills can be simply swallowed dry, but Moose warns that doing so can be a choking hazard. He suggests that you try to save some drinking water to take pills with, if possible.

Make a Plan Before You Need It

The best thing you can do is assume that an emergency will happen eventually and prepare accordingly. Moose says that this includes making sure that you know the names of all your medications, the dosages, and the reason you take them. Your doctor and pharmacist can help you create a list of your medications, which you can keep in your wallet or on your phone.

“Be prepared as best you can," Moose says. He also suggests doing a mental walkthrough of emergency scenarios concerning your medications. This will give you a better sense of what you would need to do, and therefore, what you'd need to plan for.

Have a "Go-Kit"

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) general advice is to have a supply of your medications—two weeks’ worth or so—in a “go kit” that you can grab in case of an emergency. You should make sure that every member of your household's medications (including your children and pets) are included in the kit.

The go-kit should also include any nonprescription drugs that are needed regularly, plus a change of clothing, a flashlight, a small radio, and batteries for the flashlight and radio.

Keep a list of all your medications, as well as copies of your health insurance and prescription cards, in the go-kit as well. You can also scan your prescriptions or photograph them, then keep them on your mobile phone or upload them to the cloud.

“If you can’t reach your regular doctor or your usual pharmacy is not open, this written proof of your prescriptions makes it much easier for another doctor to write you a refill," Moose says.

Keep your go-kit where you can get to it quickly if you need to evacuate fast. You'll also want to store it somewhere that is not subject to extreme temperatures, like the trunk of a car.

Review the contents of your go-kit every few months and check the expiration dates on your medications. Before you take any medication from your go-kit, take a close look at it. If the pill or tablet smells funny or looks like it got wet, do not take it until you've talked to your doctor or pharmacist.

What This Means for You

Disasters can strike anywhere at any time—but that doesn't mean your health needs get put on hold. The best thing you can do to ensure you have what you need to stay safe and healthy during a crisis is to plan ahead.

If you need prescription medications, it's important that you know what to do in an emergency situation—for example, if your medication is lost or destroyed or you can't get to your local pharmacy.

Make a plan and put together a "go-kit" to make sure you have what you need—before you need it.

1 Source
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  1. Khan I, Public Health Matters Blog, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preparing your medicine chest for an emergency. A checklist.

By Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette has over 30 years' experience writing about health and medicine. She is the former managing editor of Drug Topics magazine.