What happens if you drink water, but you didn't boil it?

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- A boil water advisory can be issued under a number of circumstances from natural disasters, like in the aftermath of hurricanes and winter storms, to sudden emergencies like a water main break.

So, what are the health risks associated with not boiling your water? We took this question straight to Houston-area Dr. Christine Le, a family medicine specialist at Kelsey-Seybold.

First, the boil water notices are issued when an area's water is, or could be, contaminated with bacteria that could make you sick. Boiling kills disease-causing organisms, including viruses, bacteria and parasites.

You'll want to boil water before you do anything that involves human consumption, such as drinking, cooking, and brushing your teeth.

"The water is not clean for us and so, we shouldn't drink it, we shouldn't cook with it, and we shouldn't give it to ourselves to drink or even to our pets," explained Le. "We have to be very safe at this time."

If you happen to skip the boil and drink water while under a boil order, there are some health risks attached.

Le said the water is considered to be similar to flood water and shouldn't be consumed.

"It's very dirty, lots of germs, there could be viruses in there, hepatitis, there could be bacteria," she said. "These are germs that could definitely get a person very ill, get their pets ill, send you to the hospital ... during this trying time, that's just not something that could be very helpful for any of us."

How sick would you get? It depends on a person's immune system. The best bet is to avoid consuming it at all during this time.

Le adds that it's even risky to not boil water used for cooking and brushing your teeth.

"Because the water is considered unclean, and there's lots of germs in it, those could cause infections, vomiting, diarrhea, upset stomachs ... we really should not brush our teeth with it," said Le. "I think we'll probably need to remind yourself, for those of us who actually have water, to not use the water like we normally would."

The following information is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here are some common questions and answers about boil water advisories.

What should I do if a boil water advisory is in effect?



If you have bottled water available for drinking and to prepare and cook food, you can use that. But if bottled water isn't available, it's advised you:

  • Bring water to a full rolling boil for 1 minute (at elevations above 6,500 feet, boil for three minutes)
  • Allow the water to cool before use
  • Boil tap water, even if it is filtered
  • Don't use water from any appliance connected to your water line, such as ice and water from a refrigerator
  • Breastfeeding is the best infant feeding option. If you formula feed your child, provide ready-to-use formula, if that's available


Note that many cities and communities surrounding the Houston area said you can boil the water for at least two minutes.

What if I have already consumed potentially contaminated water?



The likelihood of becoming ill is low. However, illness is certainly possible, especially for people that have a chronic illness or may be immunocompromised. This is why boil water notices are issued.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of gastroenteritis, such as diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, with or without fever, should seek medical attention. These symptoms are not unique to exposure to potential contaminants/organisms in the water, and a doctor's involvement is key to identifying the cause of your illness. If your doctor suspects a waterborne illness, you may be asked to provide blood and/or stool samples.

SEE ALSO: Boil orders in effect for much of the Houston area

What about hand washing under a boil water notice?



  • In many situations, you can use tap water and soap to wash your hands. Still, follow the guidance of your local health officials.
  • Make sure you scrub your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Rinse hands well under running water.
  • If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol.


Is it safe to bathe and shower?



You can use the water for bathing and showering, but you must be careful not to swallow it. Use extra caution when bathing babies and young children. Consider giving them a sponge bath instead.

Can I wash dishes and laundry under a boil order?



According to the CDC, it is safe to wash clothes as usual. But you'll need to follow a few more guidelines for dishes.

  • If possible, use disposable plates, cups, and utensils during a boil water advisory
  • Household dishwashers generally are safe to use if the water reaches a final rinse temperature of at least 150 degrees Fahrenheit (65.55 degrees Celsius), or if the dishwasher has a sanitizing cycle


What if I need to clean?


Use bottled water, boiled water, or water that has been disinfected with bleach to clean washable toys and surfaces.

Follow these CDC guidelines carefully as it relates to using bleach.

How do I care for my pets under a boil order?



Provide bottled or boiled water after it has been cooled for pets. Why? Because they can get sick by some of the same germs as people or pets can even spread germs to people.

You'll need to follow the order until your local health or city officials have deemed it safe to end it and resume consumption.

What to do after a boil water advisory is lifted?


After the advisory is lifted, flush the plumbing in your home by running all cold water faucets for at least five minutes each. You should also flush all appliances connected to the water line, like refrigerators and dishwashers. Disposable filters that have come in contact with contaminated water should be removed and replaced. Ice from ice makers should be dumped and replaced three times.

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