From aqua parks to Michelin star chefs, cruise lines aren’t shy about advertising their high-end amenities. But what the ads don’t reveal is that the medical facilities on board are likely to be far less grand. “People assume that they will have access to the same medical care on a cruise that they do on land, but this is hardly the case,” says Natalie Newman, M.D., who has served as a ship doctor on several cruises. And cruise-ships pose some unique health risks, too, from infections that can spread quickly in the boats close quarters to insect-borne diseases at ports-of-call.
Understanding the realities of medicine at sea can help keep your “Love Boat” dream trip from turning into a “Poseidon Adventure” medical disaster.
1. Infections spread easily
A cruise can be just what the doctor ordered to beat the winter doldrums. But it can also expose you to some nasty infections. Norovirus, which is so common on boats that it’s called the cruise-ship virus, causes vomiting and diarrhea. Scrupulous hygiene is key to containing this highly contagious disease, which is not limited to ships. Wash hands after every trip to the bathroom and before every meal. Soap and water is best, though a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol is OK. The good news: Most people get better in a day or two.
2. Mosquitoes can come aboard
The Caribbean and Central America, two popular cruise-ship destinations, are now home to dengue fever and chikungunya (ChikV), diseases once found almost only in Africa and Asia. Both can cause high fever, headaches, and joint pain that last about a week. Mosquitoes carrying both have also been found in Florida. To avoid bites, when on shore cover up as much as possible and avoid tight clothes, dark colors, and perfume. Natural repellents with 20 percent picaridin worked well in our tests. Deet-based products also work, but we recommend avoiding those that are more than 30 percent deet.