The Most Dangerous Diseases Found on Cruises and How to Avoid Getting Sick

When you board a cruise, the only thing on your mind should be relaxing in an exotic location with a drink (or two) and grazing the unlimited buffet. While cruises provide everything you need for an indulgent vacation, they also provide the perfect breeding ground for disease.

Choose your cruise line wisely and learn how to prevent these diseases from destroying your perfect cruise experience.

Norovirus: The king of the cruise ship diseases

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The last thing you want to deal with while on a cruise. | Jivko/iStock/Getty Images

Norwalk virus, or norovirus, can be transmitted through human contact, as well as contaminated food or water. Norovirus is the most common cause of acute gastroenteritis in the U.S. Symptoms are similar to those of food poisoning.

In reality, norovirus is not exclusively a sea-vessel disease. The GI illness fosters and prevails on ships due to large amounts of people being in close proximity to each other. In 2017, Princess Cruise’s “Coral Princess” and Holland America’s “Volendam” reported the only known cases of norovirus.

Be sure to get your flu shot before climbing aboard

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  • Respiratory illness accounts for 29% of recorded cruise ship illnesses.

The CDC reports that the flu is the most commonly reported, vaccine-preventable disease on cruise ships to date. Influenza type A and B outbreaks can occur year-round since both the crew and guests onboard come from all different regions of the world.

Like norovirus, the flu spreads easily because of the proximity among passengers. Since the flu is transmitted through coughing and sneezing, very few surfaces on board will be safe once a fellow passenger is contaminated.

Zika should make you think twice about boarding

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  • Zika virus was first reported in Brazil in 2015 and spread across the Caribbean and Latin America.

Commonly known vector-borne diseases include malaria, yellow fever, and Zika virus. These diseases are transmitted through fleas, mosquitos, and ticks. Zika is especially dangerous to expecting mothers; the virus can damage the fetus at all stages of the pregnancy.

It’s important to be aware of the peak exposure times and places associated with diseases like malaria and Zika. If your cruise ship visits ports where vector-borne diseases are endemic, take the necessary precautions recommended by the CDC to protect yourself from potential illness.

Chickenpox may have you quarantined on vacation

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Vaccine-preventable diseases like rubella and varicella (commonly known as the chickenpox) pose a great risk on cruises. Both spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Varicella can also be spread by touch.

The dormant nature of many VPDs raises a concern on cruise ships. A person who has contracted rubella may spread the disease up to a week before they develop the rash that signifies they’re infected. And the CDC states that chickenpox complications occur more frequently in people older than 15 years of age, so cruise ship outbreaks have the potential to involve serious illness.

Insurance may not cover you if you get sick

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As if your vacation wasn’t expensive as is … | Thanmano/iStock/Getty Images

  • You’ll have doctors on your ship — but the fees will be charged straight to your card.

Outbreaks onboard can be difficult to contain among thousands of passengers in a confined space. And cruise lines aren’t required to report norovirus outbreaks unless at least 3% of the ship becomes ill and reports it to the ship’s crew.

Another thing to keep in mind is the additional cost. As Carnival cruise line’s website states, “The physicians on board are independent contractors and are entitled to render services at a customary fee which may vary from ship to ship based on the time of day.” This basic fee doesn’t include medication, tests, or potential treatment, either.

These cruise lines are the worst offenders

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  • Oceania Cruises was hit with an outbreak this year.

The CDC Vessel Sanitation Program lists Oceania Cruises, Princess Cruises, and Holland America with the most reported cases of norovirus over the last two years. All three are also listed among the top 10 cruise ships with the worst disease records.

In 2017, Oceania Cruises experienced a norovirus outbreak that affected a reported 182 passengers and crew members.

How to keep yourself safe from sickness

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Your vacation can actually go smoothly. | Michaeljung/iStock/Getty Images

The good news? There are many simple precautions you can take before you venture onboard to keep yourself healthy. First, evaluate your personal health and notify the cruise line of any special health needs you require. Consult the CDC’s travelers’ health website and the GI illness outbreak updates for any potential disease notices.

It’s crucial to schedule both physician and dentist appointments ahead of time to assess your personal health and obtain any necessary vaccinations. Be prepared with proper medications on board as well as bug spray to prevent vector-borne diseases. Finally, consult your insurance carrier regarding travel medical insurance to see what will be covered and what will cost you an additional expense.