Disaster Survivors Face PTSD Risk

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: William C. Shiel, Jr, MD, FACP, FACR

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric condition that can develop following any traumatic, catastrophic life experience. Recognition of this condition increased dramatically following the war in Viet Nam, when many returning U.S. veterans developed disturbing psychological symptoms and impaired functioning. More recently, the 9/11 tragedy, the Asian tsunami, the London bombings, and Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath have left thousands of people at risk for this potentially debilitating condition.

PTSD symptoms can develop weeks or months, or sometimes even years, following a catastrophic event. Along with survivors of natural disasters, wars, and acts of terrorism, people who have been the victims of violent crime or torture often develop symptoms of PTSD.

PTSD symptoms vary among individuals and also vary in severity from mild to disabling. PTSD Symptoms can include one or more of the following:

  • "flashbacks" about the traumatic event
  • feelings of estrangement or detachment
  • nightmares
  • sleep disturbances
  • impaired functioning
  • occupational instability
  • memory disturbances
  • family discord
  • parenting or marital difficulties

Sometimes the manifestations of PTSD wax and wane, with symptom-free intervals occurring between symptomatic episodes. Anniversaries and reminders of the precipitating event can exacerbate the symptoms. Sometimes PTSD occurs in combination with other emotional disorders or with specific physical symptoms.

PTSD can develop in persons of any age, including children. The diagnosis of PTSD is confirmed when the disturbing symptoms persist for longer than one month. Because individuals differ in their reactions to traumatic events, it is not possible to predict in advance who will develop PTSD following a tragedy. PTSD is relatively common, with 3.6% of U.S. adults estimated as having PTSD in a given year.

Psychotherapy has been the most effective method of treatment for PTSD. In some cases drug therapy may be effective, and antidepressant medications of the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) class, such as fluoxetine (Prozac), sertraline (Zoloft), paroxetine (Paxil), venlafaxine (Effexor), duloxetine (Cymbalta) are sometimes prescribed for relief of PTSD symptoms.

For more, please read the Post-traumatic Stress Disorder article.

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