What to Do if You Catch a Cold on a Cruise Ship

Cruise ships are an environment unlike any other when it comes to the spread of disease. You have sometimes as many as 8,000 people from all over the world crammed into a boat together for a week or more. That means that each elevator button, handrail, tongs in the buffet, countertops are touched thousands of times each day. Unfortunately, not everyone is 100% healthy. While you can protect yourself from others, sometimes it is YOU who is the sick one. Here's what to do if you catch a cold while on a cruise ship.

The first thing to consider here is that unlike other forms of vacation destinations and transportation, cruise ships take illnesses VERY seriously. While today most of the conversation is around viral infections such as coronavirus and norovirus, even just the simple seasonal cold or flu can be dangerous on a cruise ship. To help reduce an illness's ability to spread, It is essential that you answer crew members honestly if they ask about your health status, places you've visited, or symptoms you may be experiencing. If you aren't feeling well, help protect fellow passengers from your germs as well.

In the past, cancelation penalties were so high that many people ignored this, thinking "I'll be ok." With coronavirus becoming such a major issue though, most cruise and airline companies are being more relaxed about refunding people who are sick. I hope that this change will be permanent as I don't want anyone to feel like they have to get on a cruise ship if they are sick because they can't afford to lose money. Don't be selfish and ruin someone else's cruise vacation, if you are already feeling sick - don't get on the ship. Unfortunately, things aren't always that easy and sometimes a cold manifests itself after you are already on board. This article is written from the perspective of a general cold / flu, though the advice is applicable regardless of whether it is the seasonal flu, coronavirus, or norovirus. Symptoms may vary significantly from one virus or infection to another, so make sure to be specific when looking at your cold and flu symptoms.

How to Tell If it is a Cold, Flu or Something Else

I’ve cruised enough to have met friends that unfortunately have fallen ill and cruise lines don’t play games with sick passengers. A cold though is different than other illnesses such as flu, but sometimes symptoms can be similar. The most important thing here is that if you have digestive ailments or fever in addition to cold symptoms make sure to seek immediate medical attention since that could be something more severe. To be the best patient, make sure to document your specific symptoms.

While we have the utmost respect for onboard medical teams, they are not the same as your doctor back home.

Symptoms That May Vary Between the "Common Cold", Flu, or Virus

  • Nausea
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Muscle Pain
  • Congestion (head / chest)
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Cough

With regard to the COVID-19 Coronavirus / Wuhan Virus, it is relatively easy to identify the common symptoms. Coronavirus typical symptoms include Fever, Cough, and Shortness of Breath - but generally not muscle and joint pain. If you are sick, it can be challenging to determine your exact symptoms, so do your best but do not try to self diagnose! If you have any reason to believe that you may be ill with something more than just "allergies", seek medical attention immediately.

what to do if you catch a cold on a cruise ship

If You Are Afraid Of Identifying Yourself, Call Your Doctor First

The best solution is to always comply with onboard medical team policies and requests. However, in an age where telemedicine is common and your personal physician is just a phone call away. This can be an excellent first step. The medical team on your ship may react strongly to protect the ship whereas your own doctor may be able to provide a more balanced response and nuanced diagnosis. The difference may be as simple as being 100% quarantined in your room by order of the ship's medical team because you have cold or flu symptoms, compared to your doctor being able to identify your symptoms as being caused more likely by allergies. 

While telemedicine is limited with regards to diagnostics, in the future, we're going to be able to leverage technologies like those found on Samsung phones today to provide better insight into temperature, pulse, blood pressure etc. So this option for helping to detect and diagnose your cold, flu, or virus on a cruise ship is only going to get better in the future.

Consider Confining Yourself to Your Cabin

The last thing you need to do is be wandering around the ship coughing, sneezing, and especially not touching serving spoons in the buffet. Have someone deliver food to your room or order room service (but please make sure to wash your hands and the door handles too so you protect the delivery person's health). This might not be as fun as wandering around the ship and hanging out at bars but it will give you the chance to catch up on rest and get some fresh air and sunshine out on the balcony if you have one.

royal promenade oasis of the seas

Watch People Around You and Avoid Areas Where You Might Spread Germs

You are going to be surrounded by thousands of mostly healthy people, and even though most cruise lines have a health questionnaire before you board – people lie. Others will begin to manifest symptoms on the ship itself. On almost every cruise I see people sneezing, coughing, wiping their eyes and nose or other potential signs of having a cold. Don't be that guy! It's just disrespectful to your fellow passengers.

The most viruses are spread by droplets expelled through coughing and sneezing. This is true for colds as well as flu and coronavirus as well. These virus droplets can also be spread simply by someone who might have rubbed their drippy nose and then pressed an elevator button, grabbed a handrail, or browsed a menu at a restaurant or bar. The next person who touches that spot and then rubs their eyes, nose, mouth etc. now has a chance of being infected too.

While not perfect, you should consider carrying hand sanitizer with you to use before and after touching those surfaces to avoid any chance that you might spread your germs this way too.

Avoid Situations Where You’ll Touch Other People and Stuff They Touched

I’m generally a pretty friendly guy but I try not to shake hands when I meet people. Instead, I opt for a friendly fist bump where possible. The same holds true for a cruise ship except that here there are a lot more opportunities to come in close contact with others. This includes the gym, sauna, buffet lines, elevator buttons, door handles, handrails, pens, even the stacks of plates and cups at non-buffet eateries. If you have a cold (or think you do), simply avoid all of these areas and consider having someone else deliver your food from the buffet.

Your best bet is to simply avoid those situations and then do what you can to protect yourself and make your body more resistant to catching a cold.

Wash Your Hands

This is so important to health on a cruise ship that most cruise lines even have this instruction as part of the safety drill before setting sail. This is important to protect others from your germs as well as those you may have picked up from touching an infected surface. However, it’s also critical to making sure you don't get more sick by avoiding infecting yourself with other germs picked up somewhere. Simply touching an infected object probably won’t make you ill … but if your fingers then rub your eyes, pick your nose, or are used for eating something then you can become infected.

One thing I absolutely love about newer cruise ships is that in addition to hand sanitizer - they are offering handwashing stations before you enter restaurants. This is ultimately the best solution to keeping yourself healthy ... as well as preventing the spread of germs to others.

hand sanitizer station

Use Hand Sanitizer

Cruise ships do a pretty good job with placing hand sanitizer stations at the entrance to most common areas including restaurants, but it is up to you to use it! I also carry a small bottle of hand wash with me and use it between trips to be buffet line as well as pretty much any time that I come in contact with anyone including simply shaking hands.

walking track oasis of the seas

Get Some Exercise

While you should NOT go to the gym, pool, spa etc. if you are sick, most ships have a walking track on the top deck and many have an outside deck lower on the ship where you can walk at your own pace and avoid contact with people. The sunshine and fresh air will help alleviate symptoms, as well as help, keep your immune system working to fight off the cold germs.

Eat Healthy And Avoid Alcohol

Make sure to eat your veggies and watch out for anything that might cause other issues such as high-fat foods and cream-based items that might lead to more congestion. The goal here is the get your immune system stronger so it can fight the cold germs and make you healthier faster. Our friends at Cruise West Coast have more tips on how to stay healthy on a cruise. In addition to eating healthy, make sure to also avoid alcohol consumption since this will only reduce your body's ability to fight off the infection.

what to do if you catch a cold on a cruise ship and how to protect yourself

If You Are Already Feeling Sick Don't Board The Ship!

Unfortunately, many viral infections have a period of time where you might not show any symptoms. However, if you already have symptoms, don't board the ship!

While cruise ships are a great petri dish for the spread of disease, most cruise lines do a very good job of keeping things as clean as possible. While there are periodic outbreaks like we're seeing with coronavirus, other issues such as flu, norovirus and the common cold are a constant risk.

Despite the confidence I have in cruise ship staff to help keep us healthy, I don't want to just assume that they wiped things down regularly or that the hand sanitizer will be working. Plus, they are only able to clean stuff up. It’s up to you to make sure you are protected and if sick, that you don't spread it to others.

This might all seem scary but it's not. Cruises are one of the most fun vacation options out there and thousands of people avoid getting sick every day. Please remember this and keep the health of your fellow passengers in mind and do the right thing if you get sick on a cruise ship!