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Amid surging cruise ship illnesses, experts share ways to stay safe on the high seas

Nothing disrupts a cruise ship vacation like an outbreak of illness — but by taking proper preventative measures, you can help reduce the risk of seafaring sickness.

In the most recent report of cruise ship illness, approximately 25 passengers returning from a cruise started to feel sick with nausea toward the end of a flight last week.

“CDC is aware of a flight from Vancouver, British Columbia, which arrived at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Friday, May 31,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in an emailed statement shared with Fox News Digital about United Flight 1528.

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“Public health officers from CDC’s Houston Port Health Station worked with EMS to evaluate ill passengers on board.”

Among the 163 passengers on the airplane, 75 were on the same cruise, according to multiple reports.

Cruise ship sickness

Nothing disrupts a cruise ship vacation like an outbreak of illness — but taking certain preventative measures can help reduce the risk of seafaring sickness. (iStock)

“As a precautionary measure, the aircraft will be removed from service and go through a deep cleaning before returning to service,” United Airlines told Fox News Digital in an emailed statement.  

Most of the ill passengers reported mild gastrointestinal symptoms, the CDC noted, but none had a fever during the flight or upon physical exams.

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“No passengers met CDC criteria for further public health follow-up,” the CDC stated. “Passengers from the flight continued with their travel plans.”

Neither the CDC nor United Airlines specified which cruise line was involved.

Girl face mask cruise ship

The most common illnesses on cruise ships are respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal infections and other vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the CDC. (iStock)

The sick passengers may have taken a cruise on Royal Caribbean International’s Radiance of the Seas, as it was the only ship docked in Vancouver on the day of the flight, according to Cruise Radio, an organization that provides the latest cruise news.

The ship had a confirmed norovirus outbreak from April 8 to April 22, according to the CDC.

Additional cruise ship outbreaks

The CDC has reported seven outbreaks on cruise ships this year — including the Celebrity Summit by Celebrity Cruises, which sailed from May 24 to May 31.

Approximately 68 passengers and five crew members on that ship reported diarrhea and vomiting during the cruise.

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Nearly all seven of the outbreaks were linked to norovirus, which historically has caused outbreaks of stomach pains and diarrhea on cruise ships.

The CDC Vessel Sanitation Program generally posts outbreaks that are of “public health significance.” 

This typically includes voyages from the U.S. and foreign ports that are 3-21 days long with 100 or more passengers, with 3% or more of the passengers or crew reporting symptoms of gastrointestinal illness.

Common illnesses on cruise ships

The most common illnesses on cruise ships are respiratory illnesses, gastrointestinal infections and other vaccine-preventable diseases, according to the CDC.

Among the respiratory illnesses, some common culprits include colds, influenza and COVID-19.

“Ships have close living quarters and communal spaces, which allow bacteria and viruses to spread more easily.”

Gastrointestinal illnesses are highly contagious, the CDC warned.

Those can be caused by various germs, including bacteria, viruses or parasites, with the norovirus particularly well-known for causing stomach illness on ships.

Norovirus, often referred to as the stomach flu, usually causes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain within 12 to 48 hours of exposure.

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Some people may also experience headaches, body aches and fever.

People generally get better within several days, but they can still spread the infection several days after they feel well, according to the CDC.

Why are cruise ships susceptible to outbreaks?

“Ships have close living quarters and communal spaces, which allow bacteria and viruses to spread more easily,” Jill Blumenthal, M.D., infectious disease specialist at UC San Diego Health, told Fox News Digital.

“In addition, passengers are regularly joining [the cruise] at different stops, making it easier to introduce illness.”

Woman sick on plane

Norovirus, often called the stomach flu, usually causes symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and stomach pain within 12-48 hours of exposure. (iStock)

Cruises may bring passengers to locations that put them at increased risk of infectious diseases like malaria, yellow fever, dengue fever, Zika, chikungunya and Lyme disease due to exposure to mosquito or tick bites, the CDC warned. 

Travelers are also more susceptible to food-borne illnesses, which can easily be transmitted person-to-person on a cruise ship.

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“Food-handling practices and water systems aboard certain vessels may have the potential for transmission of foodborne and waterborne diseases,” Blumenthal said.

“Port visits can also expose travelers to local diseases, which they can bring back on board,” the doctor warned.

Passengers should consult a health care provider to discuss risks.

Approximately 12.5 million passengers traveled on cruises that began in North American ports in 2022, per the CDC. 

Tips to prevent sickness on a cruise

The CDC recommends that people ask about COVID-19 testing or vaccination protocols before traveling — and to consider wearing a mask in crowded or poorly ventilated areas.

Prior to taking a cruise, passengers should consult a health care provider to discuss risks, vaccinations and other prevention strategies, as well as any medications to help prevent illness, said Blumenthal. 

person washing their hands with soap and water

People should always remember to wash their hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, eating or touching surfaces, experts advised. (iStock)

This is particularly important for those who have chronic health conditions or who are immunocompromised, elderly or pregnant, the doctor said.

People should always remember to wash their hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, eating or touching surfaces.

Alcohol-based sanitizers are not effective against the virus, experts warn.

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When traveling to locations where insect-borne infections are prevalent, the CDC recommends using EPA-registered insect repellent, like DEET.

It is also important to use appropriate cough etiquette and to seek care from the ship’s medical staff in the event of illness.

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Travelers should also be aware of any non-infectious conditions prior to embarking on a voyage, Blumenthal added.

Some people are prone to seasickness or motion sickness, including those who are taking certain medications, such as birth control pills, antidepressants or painkillers, the CDC noted on its website.

Motion sickness

Some people are prone to seasickness or motion sickness, including those who are taking certain medications, such as birth control pills, antidepressants or painkillers, the CDC noted on its website. (iStock)

Those who are at risk of seasickness should ask a health care provider to prescribe a medication to prevent or reduce symptoms, the agency advised.

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It’s also important to apply sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher, as it’s possible to get sunburned even when it’s cloudy or cold, the CDC added.

Fox News Digital reached out to Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean (also owner of Celebrity Cruises) requesting comment.

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