What to Do When You Get Sick on a Cruise

Cruises can provide travelers with an opportunity to experience new cultures, see interesting sights, taste new foods, spend time in nature, and have a whole lot of fun. Cruising is a convenient way to travel to many destinations while unpacking just once. Plus, many cruise lines offer kid-friendly entertainment as well as free childcare, making cruising an especially enticing option for families with children. This vacation option, however, also comes with multiple opportunities to become ill. After my daughter came down with a gastrointestinal bug on our last cruise, I wanted to share with you what to do when you get sick on a cruise, and how to avoid coming down with an illness while at sea.

What to do when you get sick on a cruise

Cruise ships have become notorious as carriers of the Norovirus, or stomach flu. The truth is, you can contract this virus anywhere, not just on a ship. According to Cruise Critic, “Norovirus spreads swiftly wherever there are many people in a small area, including nursing homes, restaurants, hotels, dormitories … and cruise ships.” Other viruses (like the common cold) and bacterial infections can spread easily on cruise ships too. Motion sickness is also a concern for potential cruisers, who might worry that the ocean’s waves will leave them feeling nauseated and unable to enjoy their vacation.

Wash hands often

The best way to avoid getting sick on a cruise or at home is to wash your hands often with warm water and soap. When a sink isn’t available while on an excursion or you don’t feel like running to a restroom every ten minutes, use hand sanitizer to rid hands of germs. Cruise ships are vigilant about having guests use hand sanitizer when entering restaurants. After my daughter, Karissa’s illness, I took it a step further. I brought a bottle of germ juice to the ship’s restaurants so that after we loaded up our plates with food from the buffet (touching serving devices handled by dozens of others), we slathered on another layer of antibacterial gel before eating.

Notify the cruise ship’s medical staff

You may feel wary about letting your cruise ship’s medical staff know about your illness because you’ve heard that your entire family will be quarantined for the duration of your cruise. (This was not the case for us!) It is important to inform the infirmary of any vomiting or diarrhea experienced while at sea to avoid spreading illness and causing a ship-wide Norovirus outbreak. Additionally, if the symptoms can be traced back to a particular food eaten on board the ship, the cruise line can avoid serving it again to stop the spread of food borne illness.

Follow quarantine rules

My daughter and one adult were indeed instructed to remain in our stateroom for 24 hours after the last time she vomited. The whole family was NOT confined and after the one-day quarantine, my daughter was back to her healthy self and ready to explore our next port of call.

If you are quarantined for a portion of your cruise, you will not be permitted to exit the ship for that time period. Who wants to be running around when they feel sick anyway? It’s better to rest up and get well so you can make the most of your remaining vacation days. Additionally, it is standard procedure for most cruise lines to offer a discount off your next cruise based on the number of days quarantined.

Pain and sickness scale

A pain and sickness scale can help parents and medical professionals understand the severity of illness (Photo by Colleen Lanin)

Visit the infirmary

Once you notify medical staff that you or a family member is ill with symptoms of Norovirus or food poisoning, they will insist on seeing the patient. When I informed the nurse that my daughter was too sick to make the journey to the ship’s infirmary, a staff member came to our stateroom to transport her via wheelchair, with seasickness bags in hand just in case.

Get the shot

After my husband brought our 8-year-old back from the ship’s medical center, he informed me that the nurse had wanted to give Karissa a shot, but as a protective dad who thought his daughter had been through enough, he refused. I said, “Go back down there and get that shot!”

As incentive to get the anti-nausea injection, I promised Karissa a brand-new toy from the cruise ship’s gift stores. Our poor daughter had already thrown up several times and was suffering from dry heaves. The injection she received put an end to that misery. She was still lethargic and woozy, but she didn’t throw up again. (Apparently the shot should not be taken in food poisoning cases.)

Make the most of your quarantined time

Since I am more prone to stomach viruses than my husband (and I am known to panic at the site of another person vomiting), my husband bore the brunt of caring for our sick little girl. Meanwhile I kept my son away from our stateroom as much as possible in an attempt to avoid illness. While our daughter slept, my husband watched numerous movies, played games on his iPad and took in the scenery from our room’s balcony. For meals, I stayed in our room with Karissa so my husband could go eat in the ship’s restaurants rather than in our germ-filled room.

If you’re the one stuck in the stateroom with a sick kiddo; use this as leverage! My husband used this fact throughout the rest of our trip, saying, “Since I stayed with Karissa when she was sick, I’m going to go play poker in the ship’s casino.” Even after our cruise (while we were still on vacation), he used this as an opportunity to go watch sports on TV and have a drink in our hotel’s bar while I put the kids to bed one night. Come to think of it, he’s still using this as reason to go play…and our cruise was weeks ago!

What to do when your child gets sick on a cruise

My daughter is not new to feeling sick on boats; here she is as a toddler feeling nauseated due to motion sickness on a Catamaran cruise (Photo by Colleen Lanin)

Ask for new towels

After my daughter got sick, we called our stateroom attendant to request fresh towels. I know that it is better for the environment to reuse towels rather than washing them each day, but when on vacation in a small space together, it’s impossible to know who has touched which identical towel. Better safe than sorry!

Bring disinfectant wipes

Upon hearing about my daughter’s cruise ship illness, my friend and fellow travel blogger, Traci LaRosa Suppa of Go Big or Go Home advised me to purchase some disinfectant wipes to sanitize our stateroom. Traci brings these along on every trip to wipe down the remote control, door handles and phone in her hotel or stateroom. Liling Pang of Trekaroo also packs antibacterial wipes when traveling. She said, “I wipe, wipe, wipe when we travel and it’s worked wonders. I’m not usually germphobic, but I totally am when we are traveling because there is nothing worse than being sick on a trip.” I purchased some wipes at our next port of call and thoroughly disinfected our stateroom. I’ll be bringing these with me on every trip from now on!

Drink lots of fluids

Dehydration can become a serious problem when traveling, especially if you vomit due to Norovirus or motion sickness. Be sure to stay hydrated during your travels by drinking plenty of bottled water and/or electrolyte-infused hydration beverages.

Dramamine comes in four formulas, including a new chewable grape-flavored tablet for kids ages 2-12

Avoid or handle motion sickness

If you are prone to motion sickness, like my daughter and I are, be sure to bring along the right medication to make your sailing feel smoother. As a spokesperson for Dramamine, I am a true believer in this over-the-counter medication. Dramamine helps users avoid the feelings of nausea, upset stomach and headache that can be caused by movement. Dramamine works best when taken an hour before sailing (or driving or flying) but it also helps to reduce the symptoms of motion sickness if taken after you have already begun to feel sick. Dramamine comes in four formulas, including a new chewable grape-flavored tablet for kids ages 2-12.

I took Dramamine one day during our seven-night cruise. After watching a movie in my stateroom, I felt fine and was ready to enjoy dinner with my family in the ship’s dining room. Visit RoadWarriorAlliance.com to learn more about how to avoid or handle motion sickness.

Pack a medical kit

I recommend packing a simple medical kit for use when cruising. In addition to Dramamine, bring along some small bandages for minor cuts, an antibacterial gel, fever and pain reducer for adults and children, and cough syrup. For additional ideas on what to pack, check out our Packing Lists page. Each packing list is divided by category, including a Medicines section.

Have you ever gotten Norovirus or motion sickness when cruising? Do you have any additional tips for what to do when you get sick on a cruise? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: This post is brought to you in partnership with Dramamine. I am not a medical professional. The information contained within this post is based on my own experience, opinions and research. For medical advice, please contact your physician.

Top photo by George Bailey, Geoarts.com, purchased from istockphoto.com.

About Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama

Colleen Lanin is the founder/editor-in-chief of TravelMamas.com. As the author of her book, "The Travel Mamas' Guide," she teaches parents not only how to survive a trip with children, but also how to love exploring the world with their offspring. Her stories have appeared online and in print for such outlets as the "Today" show, NBCNews.com, Parenting Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, Chicago Tribune, Expedia, San Diego Family Magazine, and more. Colleen gives tips on television, radio, and as a public speaker. She has a master’s degree in business administration with a background in marketing. She lives in Arizona with her husband and two kids.

Comments

  1. Great tips – and hope that she had some fun days on the cruise! there’s nothing more miserable than being sick.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      And especially being sick on vacation. Thankfully my daughter was healthy & ready to explore after just 24 hours!

  2. WildernessBarbie says:

    Acupuncture “press tacks” work near miracles for motion sickness and nausea when applied to the same point that Sea Bands hit (two fingers width down from bend in wrist on inside, between two tendons). No side effects, no problems with other medications. You can buy 100 for $10 on Amazon.

    A point of clarification- Anti-nausea medication is NOT recommended for food poisoning. Your body is trying to purge the toxic food, preventing that will only prolong your agony!

  3. On the last cruise ship we were on, the Norwegian Breakaway, there were antibacterial gel disensers everywhere! I think the companies are really getting serious about it.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Yes, there were lots of antibacterial gel dispensers everywhere on our cruise too. I’m glad they take it so seriously!

  4. I’m so glad that she recovered quickly and was able to enjoy the rest of the trip! I make everyone use Purell constantly when we’re traveling but took antibacterial wipes with us on our recent trip after hearing about your experience . We have cruised several times and have avoided Norovirus thus far but my younger daughter had an allergic reaction to something on a Baltic cruise a few years ago and had to see a doctor in the medical centre for a shot of antihistamine. I was very impressed with the staff and the facilities but it’s very frightening to need medical care at sea!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Thanks, Lisa. I’m glad my daughter recovered quickly too. It wound up being just a blip in our trip rather than a vacation spoiler. How scary about your daughter’s allergic reaction – I’m glad she was able to get the care she needed on board the ship!

  5. My daughter was 7 yo when she went on her first (and last if you ask her) cruise. While still docked, she had a cookie from the buffet. Not 20 minutes later, her bowels exploded! She had the runs for the rest of the trip– seven days. Miserable experience! When we got to the first port, La Paz, we bought all kinds of OTC remedies, but her experience was for ever tainted. Lol! Good tips, by the way!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Oh, that sounds horrible, Suzette! I would think it would take longer than 20 minutes to get sick from something you ate and a cookie sounds pretty innocuous…maybe it was something she had the day before? In any case, I’m sorry your family had such a rough experience. I hope you’ll give cruising a go again sometime because they really can be such a fun way to see the world!

  6. Looks like some great information to have, I’m just so sorry you had to learn it the hard way!

  7. We some friend were traveling at a point in a cruise ship, there the funniest experience with Norovirus I ever got is- my friend started vomiting and one of the stranger came to help with a coin. He said to keep the coin into his mouth for a while to stop vomiting, we were astonished to hear this.. How come but after a while we saw that my friend recovered soon.. we still don’t know how it happened….

  8. I’m on the Oasis of the Seas (Royal Caribbean) and my 15 month old is on day 2 of being quarantined. These guys take hand cleaning and sanitizing super seriously. They’ve been replenishing our bathrooms with stacks and stacks of fresh new towels. They’ve given me a huge jar of Lysol wipes and the medical facility is regularly keeping tabs on my monkey’s progress. It’s been a crazy last 36 hours but we’re managing. Some tips I’d like to add:
    – always carry apple sauce with you (apple sauce with bananas from Trader Joe’s are great). This ship carries no rice cereal or baby purée which obviously makes it difficult to follow the BRATS diet during Norovirus
    – I wish and I wish I had brought my bullet (blender) with me. The ship crew has to follow protocol so they can’t purée food for you.
    Why am I feeding my 15month old purreed food you ask? When they’re this sick, they don’t have the patience and stamina to sit and eat. And it’s that important for them to get solids in them.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      Hi Reem – I’m so sorry to hear your little one is sick! Thank you for the additional tips. I hope your toddler is feeling better and you can get back to enjoying your cruise ASAP!

  9. While on a recent cruise I contracted the Norovirus from the someone or something in the buffet. Since this had happened to me on a previous cruise, I had asked my doctor for meds before the trip. It took three days but the meds did the trick. After this incident, I am puzzled how I could have contracted this virus 2 times on two cruises even though I to keep my hands clean both by washing them for the 20 seconds recommended by health care professionals and by using the gel dispensed at the entry of every dining room. Makes me want to swear off cruising!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says:

      lbl – I am so sorry to hear about your bouts of Norovirus during two cruises. Unfortunately, we can get this dreaded bug anywhere, not just on a cruise. In fact, I am still recovering from tummy troubles, which I think I contracted on an airplane home from a recent trip. After serving up your plates from the buffet, be sure to use some antibacterial gel since other cruisers might not be as good about washing hands as you! I hope you’ll cruise again, illness-free!

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