Public health impact of drought: advice for the public

There are several health impacts associated with drought. The health consequences are related to dehydration, increased transmission of infectious diseases and poorer mental health. During extended periods of low rainfall, we may be asked to reduce unnecessary use of water, for example, by not washing our cars or watering our gardens or filling pools with a hosepipe. If the situation gets more severe, water resources may need to be conserved further, with use limited to essential needs such as drinking, cooking, and hygiene practices. There are things we can all do to protect ourselves from the potential health consequences of drought.

Summary

Stay informed

Be aware and follow any restrictions on the use of water, for example, hosepipe bans.

Sign up with your local water company for notifications.

If disruptions or changes to supplies occur (such as a reduction in water pressure), contact your water company to let them know.

Vulnerable consumers should contact their water company to register on their Priority Services Register (PSR) so they could get extra help and support, for example, the delivery of bottled water.
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Maintain hygiene during a drought period

Continue to wash your hands and maintain hygiene regardless of drought conditions, as it is a highly effective way to prevent the spread of infectious diseases.
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Stay hydrated

Drink enough fluids, especially during hot weather. Avoid alcohol. Everyone is at risk of dehydration in hot temperatures. Those with pre-existing health conditions, older people, outdoor workers, outdoor athletes and the very young are particularly at risk.
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Look after your mental health

Drought may have an impact on mental health. Periods of drought can be stressful, especially for those whose livelihoods or jobs rely on water.

Seek support from family and friends or from support organizations if you are struggling.
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Reduce respiratory problems

Be aware of any air quality updates. Carry an inhaler with you if you use one.

Drought conditions can increase the amount of dust in the environment, which can potentially affect people with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
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Use water efficiently

Use water responsibly and avoid wasteful usage.

This helps to save water resources for the environment. In a serious drought, it also helps to ensure there continues to be enough water for people’s essential needs.
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1. Stay informed

Regularly check your water company website, social media, and news outlets for advice and guidance on water use and to stay abreast of the latest situation.

Report changes in the colour, taste or water pressure of your tap water to your water company.

Ask to be put on your water company’s Priority Services Register if you think that you may need extra help, for example, if you are older, have an existing health problem or disability.

If you are on a private water supply, know where to seek help and advice should you need it. The Drinking Water Inspectorate (DWI) has further guidance on managing private water supplies.

Register with your local authority and social services if you require support.

Be aware that drought can cause rivers, lakes and streams to have lower than normal levels of water. During high heat and drought conditions, follow the messaging in popular recreation areas about potential health hazards, for example, diving.

2. Maintain hygiene during a drought period

Continue to maintain good hand hygiene, as it is a highly effective way to prevent the transmission of infectious diseases. Wash your hands at least when you:

  • get home or into work
  • blow your nose, sneeze or cough
  • eat or handle food

Avoid touching your eyes, mouth and nose until you have washed your hands.

You should wash your hands for 20 seconds with water and soap.

If hand washing facilities are not available, use hand sanitiser gel or sanitiser wipes.

Continue to wash food and your kitchenware as normal.

Take showers instead of baths, when possible. This will help to save water.

3. Stay hydrated

Ensure you continue to drink sufficient amounts of water. Do not reduce your water intake in an attempt to conserve water. You should be informed of any issues with your water supply, so continue to use your tap water for drinking unless advised not to do so. If there is an interruption in the water supply, an alternative supply of water will be provided by your water company.

Always carry water with you when traveling during hot weather.

Drought often occurs during a period of hot weather. The heat can affect anyone, but some people run a greater risk of serious harm, namely:

  • older people
  • babies and young children
  • people with a serious chronic condition
  • people with serious mental health problems or on certain medications
  • people who are physically active outdoors
  • homeless people.

Look out for neighbours, family or friends who may be isolated and unable to care for themselves – make sure they are able to keep cool. Stay out of the heat, cool yourself down, keep your environment cool or find somewhere else that is cool. More information is available from the NHS and in the Heatwave Plan for England, developed by UKHSA.

Bottled water is not recommended for use with infant formula unless tap water is not available as it is not usually sterile (free from bacteria) and may contain too much salt (sodium) or sulphate. If bottled water must be used for formula:

  • boil the water (1 minute recommended) before use to ensure that it is sterile and let it cool down (to room temperature)
  • check the label to ensure that there is less than 200 milligrams (mg) per liter of sodium (Na) and no more than 250mg per liter of sulphate (SO4)

4. Look after your mental health

For those whose livelihoods or jobs rely on water and the environment, drought conditions can lead to feelings of distress and anxiety. If you are not feeling well, contact friends and family for support or visit NHS Every Mind Matters, which has helpful tips about how to manage anxiety and stress.

If you are concerned about your mental health and wellbeing, you can also access support by:

  • visiting NHS111.uk
  • dialing 111
  • seeing your GP

5. Reduce respiratory problems

If you use an inhaler, ensure you carry it with you during hot dry periods. This is important, because during dry periods, air quality may be poor and pollen counts could also be high which can affect respiratory conditions

Wildfires often occur during dry periods, and the smoke and ash from such fires can affect respiratory conditions. If wildfire smoke is affecting air quality in your area, keep windows and doors closed.

Find the latest air pollution forecast on the UK Air Website.

6. Use water efficiently

If there are restrictions on water use in your area, please follow the guidance given.

Use water-efficiency devices in your home and garden. Your water company can provide advice on how to order and install them. Many water companies also provide water saving devices for free. Advice about gardening is available from Water UK.

Take simple measures to save water, for example, fixing leaks, turning taps off whilst brushing your teeth and only running the washing machine on a full load. If possible, take a shower instead of a bath and use water responsibly in the garden.

Find other water saving ideas from Water UK Water’s Worth Saving and Waterwise.

More information

Find your water company at the Consumer Council for Water.

Find water situation reports at the Environment Agency.

The DWI‘s Private Water Supplies.

Weather forecast and high temperature health warnings on the Met Office website.

UK-AIR – health advice about those who may be particularly sensitive to air pollution, via the UK-Air website or call 0800 55 66 77.

A hot dry period can be associated with a heat-health alert. More information can be found in the UKHSA Heatwave plan for England.

Water UK has a range of information and tips for using water efficiency.