Going on a Cruise? Here’s How to Stay Healthy Onboard

By Ivan PetrenkoMay 18, 2024 00:30 AMNews
White cruise ship during sunset
White cruise ship during sunset. Source: unsplash

Viruses and bacteria spread quickly on ships, but experts say good hygiene and advance planning can help you keep sickness at bay. Cruise ships are well-known incubators of gastrointestinal illnesses, with the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offering a database of cases by year. Although most cruises don't experience issues, the confined spaces mean even one sick person can create a serious situation, explains Tullia Marcolongo, former executive director of the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers. "It’s the domino effect, and you have nowhere to go," she says.

What Cruise Companies Do to Minimize Risks

Cruise companies strive to maintain cleanliness and monitor health onboard. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, Carnival Cruise Line has implemented expanded protocols, including enhanced sanitation measures and pre-boarding medical evaluations. Royal Caribbean Cruises highlights its health and safety program, which includes frequent inspections, water system testing, and strict food handling rules.

How to Protect Your Health Onboard

Passengers play a crucial role in maintaining their health. "The first thing I would say is that the power is in your hands," Marcolongo says. Frequent hand washing is essential to prevent norovirus, colds, and other illnesses. She recommends singing "Happy Birthday" twice to ensure thorough cleaning and using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer when soap and water aren't available. Ships often provide sanitizer stands for passenger use.

Infectious disease specialist David Parenti advises being mindful of touching surfaces like handrails and avoiding contact with your face until you can wash your hands. Despite precautions, there are many ways to get sick on both ship and land. "It all has to do with luck," Parenti says. "If you’re on a ship with norovirus, that’s bad luck."

Give Yourself a Pre-Cruise Check-Up

Travelers should schedule a pre-vacation doctor’s appointment to ensure their immunizations are current. Depending on the destination, vaccines like the flu shot might be necessary even in summer. Parenti also recommends vaccines for Hepatitis A and checking immunity to measles.

Packing a first-aid kit and standard over-the-counter medications, such as Loperamide (Imodium) and oral rehydration salts, is a smart move due to limited medical supplies onboard. Miami-based attorney Jack Hickey advises getting trip insurance that covers air ambulance transportation to avoid high costs in emergencies.

If You Do Get Sick

Be realistic about the level of medical care available on a ship. Hickey advises, "If you get sick or injured, get back to the U.S. as quickly as possible." Cruise ships, while excellent at hospitality, often lack adequate medical facilities and staff to handle serious health issues. "It’s not a hospital, but a ship carrying 3,000 to 6,000 people and going to isolated areas of the world," Hickey says.

Mental health can also be a concern during a cruise, especially for those prone to anxiety or claustrophobia. A cruise quarantine can exacerbate these issues, and travel insurance may not cover mental health problems.

Ventilation Considerations

As scientists learn more about virus transmission, there may be increased scrutiny of cruise ship ventilation systems. Unlike hospitals, which can have rooms with frequent air exchanges, most cruise ship accommodations lack this feature. Parenti suggests opting for a cabin with a window for better air circulation.

By following these tips and maintaining good hygiene, passengers can enjoy their cruise while minimizing health risks.

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