Setting sail on a cruise sounds like the ultimate escape in so many ways. You hit the high seas with friends or a loved one expecting nothing but sun, surf, and tropical destinations. But then you get bit by a few mosquitos. And then the sunburn sets in. Before you know it, you’ve eaten your weight in all-inclusive shrimp cocktails and besides feeling uncomfortably bloated, you’re suddenly far too aware of the ocean’s gut-churning motion.
Embarking on a cruise can be an amazing way to visit new places and enjoy some quality R&R, but it can also be an easy way to overeat, get sick, and come home feeling the need for a post-vacation vacation. If you’ve been watching the headlines in recent years, you know that there have been a number of illness outbreaks on various cruise ships. In 2015, 10 ships reported cases of norovirus, a super-contagious virus that can infect anyone and can be spread by contact with an infected person, touching a germy surface or consuming contaminated food or water.
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Luckily, with the right preparation, you can protect your health and actually spend your trip enjoying the sights, not curled up in your cabin. Here are seven ways to stay in tip-top shape on a cruise ship:
1. Talk to your provider before you make plans.
Believe it or not, your travel agent is not the first person you should consult with your cruise idea. First, make an appointment with your provider and talk about your health and your vacation plans. Changing your eating and sleeping habits and being thrown into a new climate can stress your body and worsen a chronic illness. If you’re managing an ongoing condition or taking regular medication, it’s important to talk to your provider and pack enough supplies before you go.
“There are different medications your provider can safely prescribe for you before you go,” says One Medical Phoenix doctor Natasha Bhuyan. “For example, if you’re prone to yeast infections, it’s nice to have Diflucan on hand in case you need it. Also, your provider can make sure you bring along medications you need but might not think about daily – like albuterol for those rare asthma episodes or Plan B if you’re not on birth control.”
2. Get vaccinated before you go.
You may not think you need vaccinations for your destination, but remember that the crew members and passengers on your trip could be from places in the world where vaccines are not as common. To protect yourself, make sure you’re up-to-date on routine vaccines like measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR), varicella, and the seasonal flu. Additional vaccines will depend on where your cruise is stopping.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers general vaccination recommendations, but you should also talk to your healthcare provider and consider taking advantage of One Medical’s travel clinic. “The CDC recommends at least Hepatitis A and typhoid vaccinations for most travelers going to even countries in Europe and Caribbean,” says Janet Coy, a Washington, DC doctor. “You can get Hepatitis A and Typhoid through contaminated food or water, so talk to your provider to see if these vaccinations are right for you.”
3. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
As mentioned above, norovirus is a highly-contagious illness that’s often spread on cruise ships. Washing your hands often is key. “Norovirus is common on cruise ships, and it can cause vomiting and diarrhea,” Bhuyan says. “The best way to prevent getting sick is washing your hands as often as possible, especially before you eat, after you use the restroom, and whenever you are in public areas.” Follow the CDC’s five-step process for hand-washing: wet, lather, scrub for 20 seconds, rinse, and dry.
Coy says the way you wash your hands matters too. “The best way to prevent bacterial or viral illness while traveling is to clean your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds—think of the “Happy Birthday” song,” she says. “If soap and water are not available, take your own or use the cruise ship’s alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Apply at least a dime-size and rub your hands together, covering all surfaces until completely dry, about 30 seconds.”
4. Be careful with limitless food and drink options.
Between three meals a day with bottomless buffets and unlimited drinks, it’s easy to overindulge. Here’s how to eat strategically:
- If you’re at a buffet, follow the healthy plate plan (fill half your plate with green veggies, one-quarter with protein, and one-quarter with complex carbs) to keep your blood sugar stable and your hunger at bay.
- Find healthy foods you really love. “Focusing on the positive versus focusing on what you can’t eat is a much more fun and holiday-type space for most people’s minds to occupy,” says nutritionist Karyn Duggan. “I advocate doing that all the time, not just when in vacation mode!”
- If you’re ordering food in the main dining room, don’t be afraid to modify your order or ask for substitutions–it shouldn’t be a problem to serve your sauce or dressing on the side or swap in a green salad for French fries.
- Eat regularly so you’re not starving by mealtime. But snack wisely — consider packing your own snacks ahead of time if possible. “A simple focus on whole, non-processed, fiber and phytonutrient-rich foods should be your overarching goal,” Duggan says.
- Drink enough water throughout the day to stay satiated. Duggan recommends calculating half your ideal body weight in pounds, then drinking that number in ounces of water each day. And if you’re drinking alcohol, be sure to have one glass of water between every adult beverage.
- And take food-safety precautions as well. According to Bhuyan, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid any foods that seem questionable. “Buffets are a breeding ground for bacteria since the food temperatures are not always at cold or hot as they should be,” she says. Also take extra precaution if traveling to developing countries by only eating food that is served hot and avoiding ice cubes. in any beverage. If you do start feeling sick from something you ate, report your symptoms to the ship’s medical team immediately and follow their recommendations.
5. Get some exercise when possible.
Just because you’re stuck at sea doesn’t mean you have to be sedentary. Many cruise ships have fitness facilities onboard; if you have access to a gym, schedule in at least 30 minutes a day of cardio, strength-training, and stretching or sign up for any exercise programs or classes available. If your ship doesn’t have fitness facilities, you can do your own indoor cardio workout and strength training, swim laps in the pool and walk the length of the ship for extra activity during the day (some ships even have jogging tracks). And if your ship is making stops, be sure to get off every time you dock and get in some extra steps while sightseeing on foot.
6. Be mindful of mosquitos.
Popular cruise destinations like the Caribbean and Central America are home to illness like Dengue fever, Chagas disease and chikungunya, which mosquitos have brought to Florida and Texas. To avoid bites, wear light-colored clothing and use a commercial or natural mosquito repellent. “Bring along DEET 35 insect repellant for your skin and spray your clothes and bedding with a picaridin, PMD, or IR3535 insecticide,” Bhuyan says.
7. Protect your skin.
You’ll probably be spending a lot of time outdoors, and whether it’s bright or overcast, you’ll need to protect your skin. Choose a sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB and look for products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide because they protect against the full spectrum of UVA rays.
“Choosing an effective sunscreen can prevent sunburns, reduce the risk of skin cancer and helps prevent early skins of skin aging,” Coy says. “The American Academy of Dermatology recommends everyone use sunscreen that offers broad-specturm protection, Sun Protection Factor 30 or higher and water resistant. Apply to dry skin 15 minutes before going outside and more importantly, reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming no matter what SPF selected!”
Try these seven strategies and your vacation will be nothing but smooth sailing.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. The One Medical Group entities and 1Life Healthcare, Inc. make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.