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Staying Healthy on a Cruise

Traveling by ship is a great way to see the world, but those all-you-can-eat buffets (not to mention the enclosed spaces) sometimes pose challenges. To help you enjoy your next cruise to the fullest, we asked three medical professionals specializing in travel and cruise medicine for their tips on staying well on board.

“It’s important to check with your doctor a few weeks before a cruise to make sure your vaccines are up-to-date—especially if you’re older,” says Dr. Art Diskin, vice president and global chief medical officer at Royal Caribbean Cruises. That goes for flu shots, too.

Write down all your medications and dosages so that if you get sick, the ship’s doctor will know what you’re taking. Also bring a summary of your medical records, especially if you have any conditions. “If a spouse falls ill, it helps the other spouse in a time of crisis to be able to hand the doctor a list,” says Holly Love, former director of fleet medical operations for Holland America and Seabourn Cruise Line. Obviously, if you’re flying to reach your port of departure, pack meds in a carry-on, not in checked luggage.

The best preventative measure against Norovirus, a highly contagious and common virus that spreads swiftly wherever people pack into enclosed spaces, is simply hand washing, especially before meals, according to Dr. Daniel Caplivski, director of the Travel Medicine Program at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. “Norovirus can spread via surfaces like door handles,” he cautions. Many ships put hand-sanitizer dispensers at dining room entrances, but while sanitizers are good at zapping bacteria, they may not be as effective against Norovirus, Dr. Diskin says. “Hand sanitizers shouldn’t replace hand washing,” he advises.

If you do get hit with a gastrointestinal illness, see the ship’s doctor and drink plenty of liquids. Dr. Caplivski recommends Gatorade because it contains salt as well as water. “Sometimes water by itself isn’t enough,” he says. The good news: symptoms usually last no longer than 24 to 48 hours.

Because of the stabilizers that steady vessels in turbulent waters, there’s less seasickness on cruises these days, according to Dr. Diskin. The exception can be on smaller ships and during ocean crossings. If you’re prone to motion sickness, consider packing meclizine* (the generic version of Dramamine).

“Be careful not to consume too much alcohol, especially if you’re out in the sun,” Dr. Diskin cautions. And try to pace yourself on those buffets. It’s not uncommon for people to overeat, especially first-time cruisers. “The more you veer from your usual diet, the more minor GI distress you may experience,” he says.

Inspired by a ship’s impressive facilities, many travelers will exercise more than they do at home. Limit injury and soreness by building up your physical activity in the weeks preceding embarkation—and then don’t overdo it on board.

* Consult your physician before taking any medication. Use all medications as directed.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.