Cruise vacation essentials: Health and Safety

Going on a cruise is not just an exciting adventure; it is also a risk for your health and wellbeing. Carrying an appropriate medical kit with you, minimizing health threats and avoiding unnecessary dangers are things you should always keep in mind as a responsible sailor. Never plan trips for which you lack the experience! This article should help you to identify key risks on cruises and how to prevent damage for your body and those of you crew.

1.) Talk to your general practitioner: Before you set sails, go to see your doctor and tell him about the trip you plan. He will know best what you medical kit should conclude, which vaccinations you will require and when you will have to start getting the shots. Remember that for many tropical diseases, vaccinations have to start up to six months in advance.

2.) Do your homework: In most countries, sailing certificates require basic first aid training. They vary in quality among schools and areas. If you plan to go on a cruise, make sure that your level of expertise in first aid meets the requirements of your trip. Get an appropriate first aid kit (check with your GP) and get suitable health insurance for the countries that you travel to. Take care that other members of your crew have basic medical training, too.

3.) Identify the risks to protect yourself: There are many health treats that apply when you are on ports, fewer if you are offshore. The main risks are infectious diseases, hypothermia, dehydration, sunstroke and heat exhaustion, and injuries. Becoming aware of them is the first step to protection!

4.) Block the transmission of infectious diseases: Most transmissions of infectious diseases occur through insect bites, contaminated food or drinks, or – avoidably – through sexual intercourse. Bring mosquito nets, protective lotions (insect repellents) and wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers during and after sunset if you stay in high-risk areas.

Buy bottled water or boil water for at least 30 minutes before you consume it. Use clean water not only for drinking, but also for brushing you teeth and washing. There are different chemical means for water purification available, alternatively filters might be better for bigger volumes. Don’t eat raw fish or meat, eat fruit only according to the saying “Peel it, cook it or forget it”. Avoid ice in your drinks if you can’t be sure that it was made from clean water. Wash you hands frequently with soap and mind your general body hygiene.

For sexually transmitted disease (STD), avoid intercourse or use condoms as a mean of protection. Keep in mind that condoms will not provide 100 percent protection. AIDS has become a burning problem in many countries of the Caribbean and Africa. Be extremely careful with medical treatment and surgery in these countries, avoid any contact with blood – including non-sterile syringes (carry your own), and blood transfusions.

5.) Don’t ignore “minor” risks: In scientific labs, most accidents occur through what? Radioactivity? Toxic chemicals? Viral diseases? Nope, minor cuts with glass and breakables. The thing is, accidents of that kind generally don’t do much harm, however, they are very common and therefore, demand attention.

It is very similar on a cruiser. The most commonly encountered health treat is the weather – appropriate clothing is an absolute must to protect yourself against sunburn, sunstroke, heat exhaustion, and skin cancer. Or, on the other side of the spectrum, hypothermia and frost damages.

6.) Get your shots right: There are vaccinations available for a variety of infectious diseases, including Hepatitis A and B, tetanus, tuberculosis, measles, diphtheria, typhoid, polio (you probably got this as a child, but make sure this still applies), meningitis A and C, yellow fever, rabies, Japanese B encephalitis.

However, a number of very nasty diseases cannot be tackled with vaccines, and this includes the most pressing killers malaria and AIDS. Vaccines against cholera are insufficient. Try to avoid exposure to sources of the infection as good as possible.

7.) Once you are well-prepared, don’t forget to ask the locals! Getting everything sorted from home is almost impossible (which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try). Many threats are highly regional, asking local doctors or the health authorities at ports should become part of your arrival routine.

To give a simple example: Bilharzia is a lethal disease caused by a parasite that has a secondary host in freshwater snails. Swimming in certain lakes can be deadly – but normally locals should know. Similar things apply to sharks, jellyfish or other venomous animals such as certain fishes or cones.

8.) Keep your body happy: Avoid dehydration by drinking frequently. Warning signs are headaches and dizziness. Dark urine can have other causes; however, drinking insufficient amounts of water is the most obvious one. If you are offshore for a long time and you live off “durable” foods, try to supplement your diet with vitamin pills and minerals. Sleep the hours your body asks for and stay clean.

9.) Think of crimes and piracy: Another aspect of health and safety is piracy and crime in ports. This is an increasing issue in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and Africa, but too engaging for being dealt with sufficiently in this article. Read more on this in my "high-risk areas of yacht piracy" article.

General precautions include appropriate insurance, in-depth studies of current danger-zones, staying in groups if you tour ports, not showing-off your wealth (if you have any) and not carrying large amounts of cash. Mostly: Don’t negotiate if you are facing people with a gun! Does this sound like common sense to you? Not to everybody, be assured.

Further Reading

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Health and Safety issues on Cruises on

Traveler's Health on Cruises by the Center for Disease Control

Department of State's Travel advice - crucial information for your safety