How many news stories have there been in the past three years about hundreds of passengers on cruise ships getting sick on a cruise ship? The most common culprit? The Norovirus. But, what is Norovirus? And the better question, is there a way to avoid getting infected?
Here is what the CDC website has to say about Norovirus:
"Norovirus is a very contagious virus that can infect anyone. You can get it from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes your stomach or intestines or both to get inflamed. This leads you to have stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to throw up."
If your only awareness of Norovirus is from the mainstream media, you would probably believe that this mysterious culprit is exclusive to cruise ships. But, you would be wrong. This virus can appear anywhere at anytime. You only hear about it when it rears its ugly head on cruise ships because that makes for a sensational story. Granted, a cruise ship is a rather confined environment, so the virus has the potential to spread from one infected person to another very quickly. So, is there anything you can do to prevent yourself from becoming infected with the virus? Yes, in fact there are several measures you can take.
One of the most common ways the virus spreads from person-to-person is by coming in contact with surfaces that may have the virus, then putting your fingers in your mouth. For example, let's say an infected person grabs a handrail on a cruise ship, leaving traces of the virus on the handrail. You come along and use the same handrail, then you go eat lunch and use your hands to eat a hamburger. The virus has gone from the handrail, to your hands, to your hamburger, to your mouth.
Your hands become the most common form of viral transmission. Therefore, anything you can do to keep your hands clean and free from the virus will go a long way to preventing the virus from getting inside your body. When you think about all of the surfaces on a cruise ship that your hands come in contact with, you begin to see how easily the virus can spread quickly through the population.
For years, cruise lines have implemented measures to prevent the spread of the Norovirus. Reputable cruise lines regularly disinfect surfaces such as handrails, food service areas, etc. If a guest or crew member is diagnosed with a gastrointestinal issue, they are typically quarantined to their stateroom for at least three days to prevent the spread of the virus and kept under medical observation. However, there is only so much a cruise line can do to protect you from becoming infected.
Here are some tips on how to protect yourself:
Wash Your Hands - This is the number one tip to protect yourself. Thoroughly wash your hands with soap and water, especially after using the restroom. And, it does not do any good to wash your hands in public rest room, only to grab the dirty door handle when you leave the restroom. So, use a tissue or napkin to open the door handle.
Hand Sanitizer Stations - Most cruise ships now have hand sanitizer dispensers outside of every dining area. USE THEM. These stations work by placing your hands underneath where a sensor will detect your hands and dispense a dose of the alcohol-like substance. Note: hand sanitizer is not a substitute for washing your hands regularly.
Handrails - Guests frequently use handrails on a cruise ship, especially if there is any motion. And, that is a good thing. However, handrails can become a surface where Norovirus lives. So, try steadying yourself without "grabbing" the handrail with your fingers. I will make a fist and use my wrist to steady myself using the handrail. Sometimes, this is not possible, and you don't want to risk losing your balance, but you get the idea. Another little trick is, if you have on a long-sleeved shirt or sweater, to pull the sleeve down and hold it between your hand and the handrail.
Buffet utensils - One of the most obvious places where you use your hands, as does everyone else, is when you are shoveling food from a buffet to your plate. Each one of those serving spoons could potentially be infected with the Norovirus. For this reason, some cruise lines even have staff serving the food to you during the first couple of days of the cruise. Personally, I wish they would do it all the time. We keep a small bottle of hand sanitizer with us at the table and use it before we eat. You can also use a paper napkin or tissue in your hand to prevent your skin from coming on contact with the surface of the utensil.
You can purchase small bottles of hand sanitizer (see below) at any Walmart or drug store. Keep one on you at all times and use a dab on your hands before eating. Especially if you eating on a buffet.
Internet Cafe - How many people have used that computer keyboard and mouse before you? Some cruise lines will even provide sanitizing wipes next to computer terminals. If so, use them. If not, this is another reason to always have a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you at all times.
Door handles - Get in the habit of opening door handles with your wrist or using the sleeve of your shirt or sweater. We do this wherever we go, not just on cruise ships.
These are just a few of my tips on how to prevent exposure to Norovirus when on a cruise. If you have some of your own tips and ideas, please feel free to share them below.