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What to Do When You Get Sick on a Cruise and How to Avoid Cruise Ship Illness

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Cruises allow travelers to experience new cultures, see interesting sights, taste new foods, and have a whole lot of fun while unpacking just once. Cruising, however, also comes with lots of opportunities to become ill. Cruise ships have become notorious carriers of the Norovirus (or stomach flu). Other viruses like the common cold and bacterial infections can spread easily on cruises, too. Motion sickness may also be a concern for potential cruisers. Avoid cruise ship illness and learn how to recover after getting sick on a cruise with these 15 helpful tips.

Avoid getting sick on a cruise and learn how to handle cruise ship illness with these tips
Avoid getting sick on a cruise and learn how to handle cruise ship illness with these tips (Photo credit: Depositphotos.com)

1. Wash hands often.

The best way to avoid getting sick on a cruise is to wash your hands often with warm water and soap. When a sink isn’t available while on an excursion or if you don’t feel like running to a restroom every 10 minutes, use hand sanitizer instead. Most cruise lines are vigilant about having guests use hand sanitizer when entering restaurants.

I suggest bringing a travel bottle of antibacterial gel to the ship’s restaurants. After loading up plates with food from the buffet (and touching serving utensils handled by dozens of others), cleanse your hands again before eating.

Washing hands is one of the easiest and most effective ways to avoid cruise illness
Washing hands is one of the easiest and most effective ways to stay healthy while cruising (Photo credit: turgayada.hotmail.com, Depositphotos.com)

2. Notify the cruise ship’s medical staff.

It is important to notify your cruise ship’s medical team as soon as someone in your cabin becomes ill. Then you or your sick travel mate can get the medical care needed and be on the mend as quickly as possible.

Inform the infirmary of any vomiting, diarrhea, cough, sore throat, fever, and loss of taste or smell. This will help to contain the illness and avoid a ship-wide outbreak. Additionally, if the symptoms can be traced back to a particular food eaten on board the ship, then the cruise personnel can avoid serving it again to stop the spread of food-borne illness.

You may feel wary about letting cruise staff know about the illness because you’ve heard that your entire family will be quarantined for the duration of your cruise. That’s not necessarily true. If it is deemed necessary, quarantine length and requirements will depend on the illness and your cruise line’s policy.

Inform the ship's medical staff of any cruise ship illness
Inform the ship’s medical staff of any cruise ship illness (Photo credit: psphotography, Depositphotos.com)

3. Visit the infirmary.

Once you notify medical staff that you or a family member has symptoms of a cruise ship illness, they will insist on seeing the patient. I informed the ship’s infirmary from our stateroom phone that my daughter was too nauseated to walk to the ship’s infirmary. Instead, a cruise staff member came to our stateroom to transport her via wheelchair, with seasickness bags in hand just in case.

Cruise ship interior hallway
Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance to the infirmary if needed (Photo credit: Deaurinko, Depositphotos.com)

4. Follow quarantine rules.

When my daughter came down with Norovirus during our cruise, she and one adult were instructed to remain in our stateroom for 24 hours after the last time she vomited. The whole family was NOT confined. In fact, 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, then you will not be permitted to exit the ship for that time period. Who wants to be running around when feeling 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 common for cruise lines to offer a discount on your next cruise based on the number of days quarantined.

Be prepared to spend a lot of time in your stateroom during a quarantine
Be prepared to spend a lot of time in your stateroom during a ship quarantine (Photo credit: Paha_L, Depositphotos.com)

5. Don’t fear the anti-nausea injection.

After my daughter returned from the ship’s medical center, my husband informed me that the nurse had wanted to give her an anti-nausea injection. As a protective dad who thought his young daughter had been through enough, he refused. But I insisted she go back to the infirmary and get that shot!

As an incentive to get the injection, I promised her a brand new toy from the cruise ship gift store. Our poor daughter had already vomited 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. This made managing a night of illness crammed in a small cabin with our family of four much easier to manage as well.

Child getting an injection
One injection is better than hours of nausea (Photo credit: IgorVetushko, Depositphotos.com)

6. Wear a mask to ward off getting or spreading cruise ship illness.

Before 2020, most of us didn’t wear masks around others, even when we were ill. Now we all know that face masks help prevent spreading disease. Many cruise lines now require masks as well. No matter the mask policy of your particular cruise line, be sure to pack some protective masks. You can wear them as required and whenever you’re in a crowded space to avoid spreading germs or getting sick.

Wear a mask on your cruise to avoid getting sick or spreading germs
Wear a mask on your cruise to avoid getting sick or spreading germs (Photo credit: littlestocker, Deposiphotos.com)

7. Avoid or handle motion sickness.

If you or someone in your travel party is prone to motion sickness, then be sure to bring along the right medication to make your sailing feel smoother. 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 your trip. But in my experience, it also helps to reduce symptoms when after you have already begun to feel sick. 

Dramamine comes in five formulas, including a new chewable grape-flavored tablet for kids ages 2-12. Read additional tips for avoiding and handling motion sickness when traveling.

Be sure to pack prescription medications on your cruise
Be sure to pack prescription medications (Photo credit: iodrakon, Depositphotos.com)

8. Pack prescription medications.

Before leaving home, make sure to refill and pack necessary prescription medications. That includes asthma inhalers, antidepressants, birth control, ADHD medication, and anything else your family may need.

You may want to ask your doctor for a prescription of ondansetron as well. According to Drugs.com, this oral medication, “blocks the actions of chemicals in the body that can trigger nausea and vomiting.” I discovered this wonder when my children were little and their pediatrician prescribed it for a bout of norovirus contracted at home. Now I never travel without it.

Keep a separate staff of medical necessities for travel
Keep a separate staff of medical necessities for travel (Photo credit: AntonMatyukha, Depositphotos.com)

9. Bring a medical kit.

I recommend packing a simple medical kit for use when traveling. In addition to Dramamine and prescription medicines, 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 for your cruise, check out our Packing Lists page.

Booking a balcony will help stave off boredom and cabin fever during quarantine on a cruise ship
Booking a balcony will help stave off boredom and cabin fever during quarantine (Photo credit: pandionhiatus3, Depositphotos.com)

10. Make the most of quarantine.

If your budget allows, then I suggest booking a stateroom with a balcony. That way, if you or someone else in your family becomes sick and you are quarantined to your room, at least you can get some fresh air and enjoy the scenery.

Ill passengers will need quarantine time to rest up and get well. If traveling with more than one adult and caring for a sick child on a cruise ship, then take turns on quarantine duty. Parents and caregivers stuck in a stateroom with a sick cruiser can use the time to play video games, watch TV and movies, read, and maybe even get some work done. Keep in mind that Internet service can be very slow and expensive while at sea, so plan ahead. Bring along books and download movies to your computer or smartphone before boarding to make sure you have lots of entertainment on hand.

Fresh towels are a must to avoid spreading illness to your cabin mates
Fresh towels are a must to avoid spreading illness to your cabin mates (Photo credit: magone, Depositphotos.com)

11. Ask for new towels.

Call your stateroom attendant to request fresh towels if someone in your crew become sick. Yes, it is better for the environment to reuse towels rather than having them washed each day. But when on vacation in a small space, it is impossible to know who has touched which identical towel. Better safe than sorry!

Wipe down all high-touch surfaces in your cruise cabin
Wipe down all high-touch surfaces in your cruise cabin (Photo credit: Rusgri, Depositphotos.com)

12. Buy disinfectant wipes.

Upon hearing about my daughter’s cruise ship illness, my friend who is the former editor of Trekaroo, Liling Pang, advised me to disinfect our stateroom with antibacterial wipes. She said, “I wipe, wipe, wipe when we travel and it’s worked wonders. I’m not usually germaphobic, 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’ve been doing the same on every trip since our cruise, too.

Whether staying on a cruise ship, in a hotel room, or in a vacation rental — plan to bring a package or two of disinfectant wipes to sanitize your temporary home. Wipe down high-touch surfaces like remote controls, door handles, and light switches.

Staying hydrated helps cruisers stay healthy
Staying hydrated helps cruisers stay healthy (Photo credit: Krakenimages.com, Depositphotos.com)

13. Drink lots of fluids.

Dehydration can become a serious problem when traveling, especially if experiencing vomiting or diarrhea. Be sure to stay hydrated during your travels. Drink plenty of purified water and/or electrolyte-infused hydration beverages. Adults should also avoid drinking too much alcohol, which can increase dehydration.

Come prepared by packing lightweight electrolyte-infused powder packets, which can easily dissolved in water. Pedialyte electrolyte powders come in kid-pleasing flavors like strawberry, fruit punch, grape, and apple.

Get vaccinated before you cruise
Get vaccinated before you cruise (Photo credit: didesign, Depositphotos.com)

14. Get vaccinations before you set sail.

If you will be cruising to one or more foreign destinations, various vaccines may be required or recommended for your safety. Check with the CDC and your cruise line to see which vaccinations you might need. You should also make sure your entire family is up-to-date on routine vaccines and get those annual flu shots to stay healthy throughout your cruise.

Avoid cruise illness by getting good sleep
Sleep is important for good health at any age (Photo credit: Wavebreakmedia, Depositphotos.com)

15. Make good sleep a priority while cruising.

It can be tempting to stay up late and hit that midnight buffet or karaoke night when cruising. But a good night’s sleep is essential to feel your best at any age. Plus, your immune system works optimally when well-rested. Therefore, try to maintain good sleep habits during your cruise by going to bed at a fairly decent hour and reenacting your family’s at-home sleep routines.

Follow these cruise illness tips to get back to enjoying your family vacation
Follow these cruise illness tips to get back to enjoying your family vacation (Photo credit: Scharfsinn, Depositphotos.com)

Learn more travel tips.

Cruising is a fun and convenient way to see the world. Plus, many cruise lines offer kid-friendly entertainment as well as free childcare. Take a look at our tips for cruising with kids.

Considering a Disney Cruise? Here’s how to choose the best Disney Cruise for your family.

If you’ll be vacationing with big kids, read these tips for traveling with teens and tweens.

Parents deserve fun, too! Read these tips for a romantic getaway with the kids.

How to Avoid Cruise Ship Illness and What to Do if You Get Sick at Sea

Save these cruise ship illness tips.

For future reference, save this list of tips for avoiding and handling common cruise ship illnesses. Simply pin the image above to Pinterest. We hope you’ll follow Travel Mamas on Pinterest while you’re at it!

Have you ever gotten a cruise ship illness? Do you have any additional tips or questions about what to do when you get sick on a cruise? Let us know in the comments below!

A Note from The Travel Mama: I am not a medical professional. The information contained within this post is based on my personal experiences, opinions, and secondary research. For medical advice, please contact your physician.

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. wanderingeducators says

    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. Lisa Goodmurphy says

    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. Laurel- Capturing la Vita says

    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!

  10. scott nguyen says

    Indeed, there were loads of antibacterial gel gadgets wherever on our journey as well. I’m happy they treat it so in a serious way!

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Yes! Definitely makes me feel more comfortable when the cruise line takes action steps to keep their passenger healthy!

  11. scott nguyen says

    GReat tips – and trust that she had a great time days on the voyage! there’s nothing more hopeless than being debilitated.

    • Colleen Lanin, The Travel Mama says

      Agreed 100%! Being sick on vacation, whether on a cruise or anywhere else, really is such a bummer. Been there, done that many times.

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