Another Norovirus Outbreak: What If I Get Sick on a Cruise?


The Crown Princess is the latest ship to fall victim to norovirus. (Photo: AP)

For people who go on cruises, it’s their (second-)worst nightmare. For people who don’t go on cruises, it’s the reason they often cite for not going on cruises.

The norovirus, which probably ranks just below sinking on the list of most feared cruise ship calamities, has struck again aboard the Crown Princess. Princess Cruises tells Yahoo Travel that about 170 people (out of the 3,007 guests and 1,1160 crew on board) fell ill during a 28-day cruise to Los Angeles to Hawaii and Tahiti. The ship returned to L.A. on Sunday.

An outbreak on that same ship back in April sickened more than 150 people. The CDC blamed that outbreak on both norovirus and E. Coli. In response to the latest outbreak, Princess says: “… we enacted our stringent disinfecting protocols developed in conjunction with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which includes an extensive deep cleaning of the ship and the terminal in Los Angeles on Sunday before the ship embarked on its next voyage.”


An unwanted stowaway: the norovirus (Photo: Thinkstock)

The good news is that for the vast majority of people, norovirus isn’t all that serious. The CDC says most people get better within 1 to 3 days.

The bad news is that it’s a miserable 1 to 3 days; symptoms include cramping, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. But it could be serious for the very young, the very old, and people with other health problems.

It’s enough to make any cruiser, or potential cruiser, feel sick. Here’s what you need to know about norovirus outbreaks on cruises:


This is what norovirus does to you. (Photo: Thinkstock)

So why is it that these things always seem to hit cruise ships?

First, that’s not exactly the case. “Our most recent CDC research indicates that only 1% of all reported norovirus outbreaks in the U.S. occur on cruise ships,” Captain Jaret Ames, chief of the CDC’s Vessel Sanitation Program, tells Yahoo Travel. Ames says healthcare facilities are the most common locations for norovirus outbreaks. Child care centers, colleges, prisons, and military camps get them too. But cruise ships are required to report their cases to health officials while many land-based places are not. That’s why when there’s an outbreak at a college dorm, few find out about it. But when one hits a cruise ship, it’s on CNN.

WATCH: More than 170 people fall ill with norovirus on cruise ship

Whatever. This stuff seems to get real serious on cruise ships. Again, why is that?

That’s because on cruise ships, you have thousands of people in close quarters for days at a time, all eating in the same places, eating the same (potentially) contaminated food, touching the same surfaces and, often, each other. Add to that the frequent turnover of passengers and crew and you have a perfect storm on the off chance that one of them is infected.

How do I get it?

Norovirus is extremely contagious. It’s often spread by consuming food or water contaminated with the virus. Food is a big culprit, especially foods eaten raw such as shellfish, leafy vegetables and fruit (if you need an excuse to avoid the salad bar…). Touching surfaces that have the norovirus on them is a danger too. And of course, contact with an infected person will also do the job.


Royal Caribbean’s Explorer of the Seas had a particularly bad outbreak earlier this year; more than 700 people got sick. (Photo: The AP)

How do I prevent it?

Wash your hands, a lot, with soap and water. If necessary, use an alcohol-based sanitizer. Most major cruise ships have hand sanitizer stations positioned near and in eating areas; some of the newer cruise ships have hand-washing stations too. Even if you’re big on washing your hands on land, double your efforts on ship. The CDC’s Captain Ames recommends washing your hands “before eating, drinking, and putting anything in your mouth; after touching your face, and going to the bathroom; and when your hands are dirty.”

Related: Just Plane Scared: Can You Get Ebola From an Airplane?

When I’m on a cruise, I wash my hands at those times, and whenever I think about it — especially after I touch a common surface (like a handrail or chips in the casino). And not only do I wash my hands before entering a buffet, after I’ve gotten my food I’ll go back and re-wash/sanitize them before eating — after all, I don’t know who touched those tongs before me. It’s a little OCD but it can’t hurt.


The key to preventing norovirus: wash your hands often! (Photo: Thinkstock)

What do I do if I or someone else on the ship gets sick?

The CDC recommends that if you see someone get sick, leave the area (unless, of course, it’s your child or something). “Report it to cruise staff if they have not already been notified,” Ames says. “You could get sick if you ingest germs that travel through the air in the form of droplets that settle on surfaces surrounding a public vomiting or diarrhea incident.”

If there’s a serious outbreak, affected passengers might be quarantined in their cabins and common areas will be cleaned thoroughly. As Cruise Critic points out, you might see some changes in the buffet, where cruise lines might eliminate self-service and have staff serve food instead (that happened on a cruise I was on when there were fears of a possible outbreak).

Related: Travel Fever (the Bad Kind): What to Do When You Get Sick On Vacation

If you feel any of the symptoms yourself, contact the ship’s medical staff; trust us, they want to know. If you do get sick, your biggest danger is dehydration, so drink lots of water. Needless to say, consider your vacation over; your job now is to get better. “Get plenty of rest,” Ames says. “Resting helps rebuild your immune system.”


If you see someone vomiting on a cruise, the CDC says to get away — as if they had to tell you that. (Photo: Thinkstock)

Forget it, I’m not going to cruise at all

That’s your right but consider this: the CDC says norovirus has sickened 1,500 passengers on cruises this year. That may seem like a lot, until you consider that more than 21 million people are cruising this year. Those are extremely good odds of having a norovirus-free cruise — odds that get even better if you know how to protect yourself.

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