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1. Visit a travel clinic
Before embarking on your holiday, book an appointment with a travel clinic. Dr. Suni Boraston, MD, director of the Travel Clinic at Vancouver Coastal Health, says there are two vaccine-preventable illnesses that should be at the top of your watch list: hepatitis A (an infectious liver disease caused by a virus) and influenza. "It's a very well-kept secret, but there are outbreaks of hepatitis A on cruise ships," she says. "Much of the staff on cruise ships is from hepatitis A endemic areas of the developing world." Getting a hepatitis A vaccine will alleviate this worry.
Another must-have is the seasonal flu vaccine. Close proximity to your fellow travellers can result in easy transmission of this contagious virus. Additional vaccines, like yellow fever, may also be administered, depending on your destination.
2. Cruise during the summer
Snowbirds trying to escape Canada's frosty weather, take note. Norovirus, the infamous stomach bug characterized by nausea and vomiting, is at its peak during the winter months. "We used to call it winter vomiting disease," says Dr. Boraston. "At this time, norovirus is circulating. When you have people cloistered together on a cruise ship, and one or two people are sick, it could spread wildly. It's very contagious." To lower your risk of contracting norovirus, book your cruise vacation for the summer months, when the illness is less active.
3. Wash your hands frequently
While on board, wash your hands with soap and water to defend against viruses. You can also carry your own personal hand sanitizer, but cruise ships are equipped with dispensers in most public areas. Bathrooms, however, are another story. "A study showed that public washrooms on cruise ships weren't as clean as they should be," says Dr. Boraston. "I tell people to get some extra exercise and walk back to their room to use their own toilets and sinks."
4. Be waited on
Buffets can serve up a smorgasbord of illness-causing viruses. When one sick traveller touches a communal serving spoon, traces of the virus could be left behind on the utensil, infecting countless others who use that same spoon. Instead of handling cutlery used by other vacationers, allow the buffet staff to fill your plate. "They will serve you," says Dr. Boraston. It's also smart to avoid shaking hands and touching hard surfaces, such as railings, where germs can lurk.
5. Pack insect repellant
If you're cruising around the Caribbean, Central America, South America, India, Africa or Southeast Asia, you could be at risk for dengue fever, a flu-like illness that's spread by mosquito bites during the day. Dr. Boraston recommends packing an insect repellant. "When taking day trips off the ship, anoint yourself with an insect repellant that contains at least 20 percent DEET. And wear light-coloured clothing—mosquitoes like dark colours," she says. Dengue fever won't kill you, but it could make you sick for seven to 10 days.
6. Bring a first-aid kit
If illness strikes at sea, it's helpful to have products you can trust from home. Be sure to pack a personalized first-aid kit that includes an anti-nausea medication, an antihistamine, an ointment for cuts, a pain and fever reliever, and an over-the-counter diarrhea remedy. "I also give people an antibiotic prescription in case they get serious travellers diarrhea—an E. coli diarrhea that you might get off-ship from drinking water or eating food in a developing country's port," says Dr. Boraston. Seasickness sufferers should also bring along scopolamine patches or Bonamine—two medications that can help relieve symptoms.
7. Stay put
Got an upset stomach or have the urge to visit the bathroom more frequently than normal? Don't roam the ship and make others sick. "Stay in your room with your own toilet and sink, and lower the risk of passing your illness around," says Dr. Boraston. If your illness lasts more than 24 hours, it might be a good idea to seek out the onboard medical staff for assistance.
If you have food allergy restrictions, check our tips on how to safely enjoy your vacation.