It’s more common than you think. Norovirus hits a cruise ship and it makes the news, but rarely do they share much about what really happens when you’re diagnosed with the virus. Unfortunately, I experienced it firsthand on a cruise to Alaska. But first, you need to know that the norovirus is not elusive to cruising. The CDC notes that nursing homes, daycare centers, schools, and cruise ships are particularly vulnerable, especially from November to April in the US.

Cruise Ship Illnesses: How Contagious is the Norovirus?

It’s highly contagious.  In fact, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), norovirus can be spread from an infected person and even via contaminated food and water, and that’s what makes it so hard to battle.

Norovirus Statistics CDC Overview

Norovirus can cause inflammation in both your stomach and intestines which leads to stomach pains, diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea. You can also experience a fever, headache, and body aches.  The virus generally runs it course in one to three days, but dehydration can be an issue, especially for young children, the elderly, and those with pre-existing medical conditions.

Dehydration can cause dizziness, dry mouth and throat, and a decrease in urination. Children may have no tears or few tears and be generally fussy.

Cruise Ship Illnesses: Norovirus Prevention

I thought I did everything I could to prevent getting the virus. I used sanitizing wipes the moment we entered our cabin to wipe down nearly every surface including the remote controls, door nobs, drawer handles, sink, toilet, etc. I also washed my hands often throughout the cruise and always used sanitizing wipes before eating. But I still got the virus. Why? Because it’s transmitted through food as well.

Norovirus and Food - CDC Findings

I’m a vegetarian, so I ate a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables and with all my other precautions, that’s probably how I contracted it. But I do think some ships and cruise lines are more prone to it. If you check out the CDC Outbreak Updates For International Cruise Ships list, it’s pretty clear that some ships have had more outbreaks than others. From my own non-scientific observations, one of the cruise lines I’ve sailed with had impressive cleaning habits. Their staff cleaned the public areas 24 hours a day touching every railing, handle, elevator button, etc. That cruise line has one CDC reported outbreak over the last 20 years. Conversely, the cruise line I did get ill on, routinely shows up in the list. though my actual sailing date doesn’t which surprises me since the infirmary was filled the night I was there and I was one of two in our group that contracted it.

CDC Outbreak Updates for International Cruise Ships

The CDC provides Cruise Ship Inspection Scores for their Vessel Sanitation Program. You can check the score of the cruise line or even the specific ship you’re interested in sailing.

Cruise Ship Illnesses: What to do if You Contract Norovirus

You’re considered contagious before your symptoms appear and even after you’ve recovered so you could be spreading the disease without knowing it. If you’re feeling ill, limit your contact with others. Contact the ship’s medical officer for assistance. Yes, it could result in a quarantine, but it’s the only way to stop the spread.

Every cruise line has their own policies, but here’s my experience:

I called the medical officer in hopes of getting medication to stop my vomiting and diarrhea. I relayed my symptoms which included dizziness  which the doctor agreed  was likely caused by dehydration which can be serious.

Instead of medical personnel making a cabin call, I was told that I needed to find my way to the medical facility located deep within the boat. Unfortunately, it was unusually rough water that night and left me banging from side to side in the narrow hallways down below – it was excruciating.

I got lost several times and ended up being escorted through several crew and food prep areas by a staff member. I remember thinking at the time that having me in those areas seemed risky. I was after all carrying a bag of vomit with me and I was sweating profusely from a fever and the exertion of just standing up when my body desperately wanted me to lay down.

When I finally reached the infirmary the beds were full and the only option was a hard, flat examination table. Grateful for a place to lay down, I took it. The doctor took my blood pressure and temperature and noted that I was very dehydrated. Unfortunately, this cruise line has  a hands-off policy which means they don’t do IVs. Instead, the doctor handed me a bottle of water and told me if I didn’t keep it down my cruise would be over.

Thankfully I was able to re-hydrate to her satisfaction after 5 hours in the ship’s health facility. Before I was allowed to return to my cabin, I was informed that I was quarantined for the next two days and should I break it, I’d be charged for the healthcare I’d been provided, which would be in the thousands of dollars. I almost laughed when I read the amount because my “care” had been several bottles of water. In addition to the charges, I could be banned for life from cruising with them again and I was acknowledging that law enforcement could be called.

Ironically, they didn’t quarantine my husband. He was free to come and go. He never contracted norovirus so in the end it didn’t matter, but you’d think someone sharing a room with me would also be quarantined.

Quarantine & Sanitizing

In addition to being quarantined, I was required to make a list of every place on the ship I’d visited in the last 24 hours and those areas would be sanitized. I returned to my cabin, still sicker than I’ve ever been in my life, but glad to be out of the medical area. I was so out of it that a team of cleaners came into my room and sanitized it while I slept. I woke up to find signs stating my room had been sanitized. It was creepy and disconcerting to know that they had been in my room, for  goodness knows how long, with me completely passed out probably due to exhaustion at that point.

Cruise Ship Illnesses: Leaving for Medical Reasons

I found out later that had I been put off at our next port, which happened to be Victoria, BC, Canada, I  would have been responsible for transportation to the hospital and any medical care I received there. We’d have also had to pay for our travel home as I would not be allowed back on the ship. Luckily we live in Seattle so the expense wouldn’t have been as expensive as if we’d been on a cruise out of Florida, but the though of being put off a cruise for dehydration caused by an illness contracted on the ship and for the lack of an IV,  surly would have made me one angry customer and yet cruise lines have no liability if you’re put off for illness.

I ended up missing the first port of call and 3 days of the 7 day cruise. While I’ve read some cruise lines offer a discount for a future cruise based on the amount of days you’re ill, mine did not. They did provide room service food like dry toast, ginger ale, and plain rice for which I was very grateful.

Cruise Ship Illnesses: What I’ll Do Next Time

It was this experience that led me to become a firm believer in cruise travel insurance. I will never cruise again without the extra protection and I’ll ask my doctor to prescribe acute anti-nausea medication to take with me. Some ships provide them to their customers; however, this one did not. Had my vomiting been stopped when I first arrived at the clinic, I would have likely not have been as dehydrated.

Ironically another member of our party did get a cabin visit. I’m not sure if it was because she was in her 90’s or if it was because she got ill after me and by that time there was more medical staff on duty. Whatever the case, she was not given any medication either. She also went through the same disinfection but was not quarantined and didn’t have to sign a contract. I can’t explain why we were treated differently other than the fact we had two different doctors – mine was overnight, hers was during the day.

While our care was not consistent, I still rely on  my advice to know the standard operating procedures from the cruise line you’re travelling. They may be different base on the trip you take, but know in advance what to expect.

Have you experienced a cruise ship illness? I’m curious about other experiences – was mine typical?