Cruises are a great way to see the world, and if you haven’t gone on one yet, you probably know at least a few people who’ve come home raving about how wonderful it was. Cruises are also fertile ground for illnesses like the norovirus, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says causes more than 90 percent of cruise ship diarrhea outbreaks.
No one wants to get sick on vacation. Keep in mind that while incidents do happen, in general, they’re few and far between. The best way to reduce your risk of illness is to be prepared and take some common sense safety precautions.
Prepare a Health Kit
It’s always a good idea to have your own health kit at the ready. Not only are cruise ship medical services expensive, if an outbreak occurs, you may have to wait a while before help arrives.
Bring the essentials, including:
- Basic over-the-counter medicines like anti-diarrheal and anti-motion sickness medications, antifungal and antibacterial ointment, antacid, cough drops and medicine for pain and fever
- Prescription medications [several days more than planned, just in case]
- Basic first-aid items like bandages, gauze, tweezers and scissors
- Sunscreen and sunburn treatment such as aloe vera gel
- Hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes
In addition, don’t forget to pack something to keep the bugs at bay and a spare pair of glasses or contacts. You’ll find a variety of natural insect repellent at DrugStore.com, and you can order extra contact lenses at VisionDirect.com.
Common Sense Precautions
Before you leave, be sure that your vaccinations are up to date, as outbreaks of measles and chicken pox have been reported on cruises ships. Depending on where your ship will stop, you may need additional vaccinations. Speak to your healthcare provider to find out more.
On board, take the usual common sense precautions. Wash your hands frequently with warm water and soap. Be extra diligent about washing before eating, after using the bathroom and touching things like stair railings and elevator buttons. Use hand sanitizer frequently.
Your Smartphone Can Help
Sickweather is a new app that lets people know how many people in their immediate area may be sick. It uses social media posts and encourages health accountability by letting people self-report specific ailments. You can set alerts to find out whether an illness is going around wherever you are, including a cruise ship. Alerts also provide reminders about hand-washing and other precautions you can take to avoid getting sick.
The WebMD app enables you to check your symptoms and determine if you may be coming down with something. The app also offers treatment and first aid information along with health forecasts based on your particular location.
If You Become Ill
If you come down with an upset stomach or diarrhea, don’t roam the ship spreading germs. Stay in your room and use your own toilet and sink to reduce the risk of passing the illness around. If it lasts more than 24 hours, seek medical assistance.
Because my wife is a registered nurse at a travel clinic and consults with international travelers, I asked her for this additional information, and I urge you to add other recommendations in a comment below.
More than 240 million passengers and crew traveled on cruises in the 10 years between 2002 and 2012, and 28 of them died from infectious disease and outbreaks. That’s not a bad record, but it’s still estimated that some 250 passengers will get sick and need in-patient care each year, even though most cruise lines follow guidance from
- The American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP),
- The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), and
- The CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP).
But smaller and independent lines may not follow those guidelines.
And then there are the health risks of eating in local restaurants offshore and staying overnight there. That’s why cruise lines often recommend speaking with your healthcare provider ahead of time about the planned ports-of-call and consider buying Travel insurance that covers medical expenses at sea and air evacuation back home.
Some Specific Health Risks
Influenza is always in season on a cruise ship that visits foreign ports (don’t they all?), because people coexist in relatively confined spaces in close contact with each other. And complications can include pneumonia, hospitalization, and death.
Norovirus, a common cause of gastrointestinal infection, is also common in closed communities. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, vomiting, and low-grade fever. The incubation period is 12-48 hours, and the disease usually runs its course in 24-48 hours, but patients can remain contagious for another 72 hours AFTER symptoms disappear, totaling as much as five days and ruining an otherwise fine vacation.
Hepatitis A and Typhoid are generally not contracted on ships themselves but are more likely when eating at local restaurants on shore, depending on the port. So ask about the risks in your destinations.
Malaria is also not much of a risk, even when ships visit ports in endemic regions of South America, Africa, and Asia, because most excursions only occur during daylight hours when mosquitos are not active. But this risk is higher when passengers spend the night (or evening) on shore. Again, ask.
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