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How to avoid illness on a cruise

Georgina Smith / 30 July 2016

Off on the holiday of a lifetime but worried about getting sick? Read our tips for keeping healthy and avoiding illness on a cruise.

Happy woman on a cruise
Read our tips for avoiding illness on a cruise for a happy, healthy holiday to remember

You've made it. You're on a trip of a lifetime, sailing the high seas in search of adventure (or a chance to unwind and do nothing at all). Yet before you know it, illness strikes. What can you do to prevent it? And what happens if you do become unwell?

Contagions love close quarters

Cruise ships, especially the larger ones, have been likened to floating cities. But unlike large land-bound metropolises, the denizens of cruise ships live in much closer quarters. This setting is ripe for opportunistic bugs to get a foothold and spread like wildfire through the passenger population.

Communicable diseases such as norovirus are notorious for ruining many a cruising holiday. Symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting – though not life threatening – can keep you holed up in your cabin for days and scuttle your dream holiday.

Even the common cold can curb your cruise enthusiasm. How can you smell that fresh salty sea air and taste the lobster if you're bunged-up and begging for nothing but Lemsip?

Honesty is the best policy

Whilst cruise lines usually do their very best to keep a sanitised ship, germs can still easily spread once on board. The key is to be honest at embarkation when asked about recent illness. If you've recently suffered from, but are no longer in the throws (literally) of a tummy bug, you may still be asked to keep quarantined in your quarters for the first couple of days of your cruise. Which is a small sacrifice to pay for enjoying the rest of your voyage and sparing the entire population of the ship a wave of illness.

Find out more about the embarkation process

Food poisoning

Cruise lines operate strict hygiene codes in their kitchens. They have to. The sheer volume of meals they produce around the clock means keeping on top of cleanliness. Bacteria like salmonella, however, can creep into kitchens whose practices fall under par.

Whilst you should be able to expect your cruise line not to cause an outbreak of food poisoning, it's prudent to pack some Imodium in your suitcase anyway. Whilst it's readily available on board any ship, you'll be charged well over your regular pharmacist's price.

Find out about the symptoms of food poisoning

Practise perfect hygiene

When you're sharing a space with so many other passengers, it's imperative you practise perfect hygiene. Not only with this help you from picking up bugs, it will help stop you from spreading them too. This means washing your hands regularly with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds and drying them thoroughly. You may also want to carry some hand sanitizer with you for added protection against unwanted illness.

Solving seasickness

If you're susceptible to seasickness, you can rest assured that large cruise ships are relatively stable and won't cause worrisome wobbles as much as smaller vessels. Yet some still find that days at sea whilst cruising can still make them green around the gills. Thankfully there are a few useful tips to help you rise above that sinking seasick feeling.

Pharmaceutical remedies include Dramamine, Meclizine (commonly known as Bonine) or diphenhydramine (known as Benadryl). These are often available on ships, however if you know you have a natural proclivity towards seasickness you may want to pack your own in advance to avoid unnecessary costs. Always check the labels of medicines and be aware of possible side effects. Some may interact with alcohol and leave you feeling drowsy.

Other stronger medicines are available by prescription. If you think this is what you need, talk to your GP before you embark. It will be much cheaper to gain a prescription in advance than relying on the ship's on-board doctor.

Drug-free fixes for seasickness

For non-pharmaceutical remedies to mal de mer, you have a few options. These include a Sea-Band wristband that targets acupuncture pressure points in your wrist to relieve nausea. Some swear by it, and at least one medical study has suggested it may relieve nausea in a clinical setting.

Ginger is also a recommended remedy for nausea, even by nurses. And there's no need to start munching on a raw fibrous route of the stuff, either. You can buy ginger herbal teas or even keep a pack of gingernut biscuits on hand. Green apples and dry crackers are anecdotally known to quell the queasiness of seasickness.

If you're really worried that even with medication you'll still be at the receiving end of the ship's rocking and rolling, you may want to book a cabin low down in the middle of the ship. And if all else fails, it may help to look at the horizon. This will help realign your body's sense of balance and can reduce motion sickness.

If you suffer a serious medical condition whilst on board

Your cruise ship will likely have at least one doctor and two nurses on board. They'll be able to help treat non-severe illnesses and injuries and prescribe basic medication such as antibiotics. If you need care and attention for a short period of time, you may be looked after in your ship's on-board infirmary. However, in the rare event that you experience a serious medical problem whilst cruising, you'll be referred to a facility on land and disembarked.


In the unlikely event you have a suspected case of norovirus or other highly contagious illness, you will probably be asked to remain in your room for up to 72 hours or until you are symptom free. This is to ensure you don't pass the illness on to anyone else and it can be contained. You'll receive all the meals you need, along with anti-nausea medication to ease your symptoms.

How to stay healthy

To help stay sickness-free throughout the duration of your cruise, stick to these simple tips:

  • Wash your hands regularly and use sanitary hand gel. This will help prevent you picking bugs lurking on surfaces.
  • Drink plenty of water, but avoid local water in ports where purity can't be guaranteed.
  • Use plenty of sunscreen: the cooling breeze aboard a cruise ship can deceive you into thinking you're not getting burnt. So lather up!
  • Don't over eat or drink, as tempting as it may be. You'll feel better for it and won't come home 10 pounds heavier than when you embarked.
  • Try to stay active throughout your voyage: it's easy to fall into the sedentary swoon of doing absolutely nothing, but your body will thank you for taking a stroll every once in a while.
  • Pack Dramamine and Imodium Jut in case. Or talk to your GP about other ways to protect yourself against the symptoms of sea-bound bugs and seasickness.

The cost of on-board medical attention

If you have to use your ship's on-board medical facilities, it won't be free of charge. Basic pharmaceuticals will also cost more than what you'd pay on land. Which is why it's always wise to bring your own non-emergency medication like aspirin with you.

It pays to be covered

Even if you have private healthcare cover, you'll still need to pay any medical bills incurred on the ship upfront at the end of your voyage. And if you have to be transported to land, and it's in a country without universal healthcare, you may incur massive costs. Depending on your illness, you may be able to recover costs from your health insurer – and you may be able to recover further costs from your travel insurance provider. Which is why it's vital you check what you're covered for before travelling.

All Saga cruises include travel insurance. Find out about Saga cruise holidays available.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.