Q: I’m planning a seven-day vacation on a cruise ship. How can I avoid getting sick during the trip?

 

A: I prefer wide-open spaces, so the idea of sailing away on a cruise ship doesn’t work for me. I also know how hard it is to please an entire family. With a gazillion activities available — rock climbing! Pilates! Poker! Seafood buffets! — cruise ships turn into gigantic floating toy boxes.

But be careful how you handle those toys. Embracing that rock wall, Pilates equipment, poker chip or all-you-can-eat shrimp extravaganza could cause a serious case of tummy turns, courtesy of a gastrointestinal virus called norovirus or “stomach flu.” Two days of stomach cramps, diarrhea and vomiting are the unpleasant results.

To keep those nasty stomach bugs at bay, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention trains cruise ship employees, monitors outbreaks and inspects ships on a regular basis through its Vessel Sanitation Program. The CDC site also posts inspection scores from all participating cruise lines. A separate Green Sheet Report on the site features the most recent CDC inspection scores, so bookmark that page before selecting your floating paradise.

The CDC also offers handy tips to reduce your chances of getting sick. You probably know the first rule: Wash your hands, wash them well and wash them often. Do this every time you touch handrails, elevator buttons, salad tongs or other items that get frequent use on a cruise ship. I also have to state the obvious: You definitely should wash your hands after using the restroom because that’s the quickest way to transmit the norovirus.

Kids or young adults also need a quick review of Hand Washing 101. If there is no automatic dryer, grab a paper towel and set it aside. Wet your hands, add plenty of soap, and rub your hands together for at least 20 seconds before rinsing. Use the paper towel to turn off the faucet (that prevents wasting water) and open the bathroom door. When there is no sink nearby, opt for an ethanol alcohol-based hand sanitizing gel. The CDC suggests a minimum alcohol content of 62 percent. As a germophobe, I buy the stuff in bulk and recycle the containers. On a cruise, make sure everyone in your family has enough travel-size bottles to last the entire trip.

When it comes to dining at exotic ports, it is best to avoid raw seafood, fruit or vegetables. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be adventurous. Do a little research about your destination and try to eat locally rather than sticking with U.S. staples. My worst vacation meal in Cozumel, Mexico, was a breakfast of pancakes, bacon and scrambled eggs. The most memorable meal was a simple dish of beef tacos, rice and beans served in a makeshift outdoor shopping center filled with regulars who spoke very little English, yet it was a short and rewarding walk from the strip of tourist dining traps.

Be safe, wash your hands, and enjoy your vacation!

— Morieka

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