You set forth on a relaxing cruise to get away from it all, but unfortunately, what you won't be getting away from is the flu, the common cold and other illnesses that can be transmitted from person to person in tight spaces. Learn how to avoid germs on cruises and you might just return feeling refreshed and ready to get back to work rather than nauseous, congested and exhausted.
Viruses and bacteria lurk almost everywhere, surviving for up to two hours on doorknobs, hand rails, water faucets and drinking fountains. And when you're crammed onto a floating city with hundreds or even thousands of other temporary residents, airborne germs become even more difficult to avoid.
Cruises have seen a rise in cases of norovirus infection in recent years, an illness that causes severe gastrointestinal upset. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), cases of norovirus had been dropping since the first major outbreaks in the 1970s, but have increased since 2008.
A little research before you embark on your cruise paired with a few basic hygiene precautions will likely protect you from getting sick, allowing you to enjoy the sights and sounds of the sea and exotic ports rather than being stuck in your room.
Check the CDC's 'Green Sheet'
Fortunately, because cruise ships first became a breeding ground for major diseases during the 1970s, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has implemented the Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), which helps the cruise industry properly sanitize their ships and limit infection, and provides regular inspections.
This means that when an illness is reported on your ship, cruise staff will implement procedures that protect the rest of the passengers from getting sick. These may include wiping tables down between uses, eliminating the use of such objects as salt and pepper shakers and sometimes even shutting down buffets and delivering food right to your table. Ill passengers are typically quarantined to their rooms for the duration of the cruise.
Travelers can check the current VSP inspection report, known as the "Green Sheet", at the CDC website. The Green Sheet will tell you the inspection score of the cruise ship you're scheduled to take, and will also give you the ship's sanitation inspection history. The CDC also provides a list of each major outbreak occurring in a given year including the cruise line, the specific ship where the outbreak occurred, the dates and the causative agent.
The Vessel Sanitation Program is voluntary, so be sure to check whether your cruise line participates before you book your getaway.
Watch out for germ hotspots
In a recent study published in "Clinical Infectious Diseases," health care professionals evaluated how well toilet seats, flush handles, door handles and baby changing table surfaces were disinfected on cruise ships, finding that only 37 percent of those objects were cleaned on a daily basis. Low rates of cleaning were linked to higher risk of norovirus outbreaks.
Another common source of illness-causing germs on cruises is the hand rails that you hold onto as you board and disembark the ship. Since you can't avoid touching either knobs in the restroom or the hand rails, the best line of defense is to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water after touching any of these surfaces, and keep your hands away from your face.
You can also take some basic precautions to ramp up your immunity and keep germs on cruise ships at bay. Be sure to stay hydrated to help flush germs out of your system as quickly as possible. While using antibacterial wipes isn't a great practice on a daily basis, they definitely come in handy on cruises, so use them to wipe off surfaces in your room that you have to touch on a regular basis.
Before laying on a deck chair to sunbathe, cover it with a towel. Consider using a napkin to handle implements like the serving utensils at the buffet line. Avoid walking barefoot on the carpet and wear shower shoes if possible. It's also a good idea to bring your own pillowcase.
Have other tips for how to avoid germs on a cruise ship? Leave us a note in the comments below.