With Cruising Back, Stomach Bugs Are Too (Should You Worry?)

If there was one silver lining to the pandemic when it comes cruising — and the increased focus on health — it was that gastrointestinal illness outbreaks were low by historical standards even as ships returned.

As cruises have returned, so too have reports of gastro illness outbreaks on ships.

Now reports of stomach bugs on cruises are making a comeback, with six ships already showing outbreaks on the CDC’s website so far in 2023.

Gastro illnesses, often associated with norovirus, have long been a regular issue for cruise ships. In fact, outbreaks make headlines when over the course of a cruise dozens, if not hundreds of passengers, can fall ill.

With so many people in close proximity to each other — and often touching shared spaces like handrails and utensils — illnesses can spread quickly.

That’s why to keep the public informed the CDC posts regular updates on cruise ships seeing gastro outbreaks. Their “Outbreak Updates for International Cruise Ships” page keeps tabs on which ships have seen issues.

Cruise lines are required to report cases of gastro illness before arriving in port — even if there are zero cases. The health agency posts outbreaks to their website when ships under their jurisdiction have 3% or more of passengers or crew reporting symptoms.

Cases Relatively Rare, But Seem on the Rise

For as much publicity as outbreaks do get, ships reaching that 3% threshold are relatively rare. Of all the cruises covered by the CDC’s rules, roughly 10-12 outbreaks are reported each year. That represents a tiny fraction of all sailings.

In fact, the CDC website says that “acute gastrointestinal illness is relatively infrequent on cruise ships” and one reason that many people associate the virus with cruising is because health officials track illness on ships, meaning “outbreaks are found and reported more quickly on a cruise ship than on land.”

Of course, the number of outbreaks took a dive in recent years, with zero outbreaks in 2020 (when cruises were paused most of the year), just one in 2021, and four in 2022.

Now, the number of cases seems to be increasing. So far in 2023 -- less than three months into the year -- there have been six different ships with outbreaks according to the CDC.

This includes nearly 300 passengers aboard Ruby Princess (or nearly 10% of passengers) on a cruise in late February who had symptoms of "vomiting and diarrhea" according to the "Investigation Update" from the CDC.

You can see data on the 2023 outbreaks reported on the CDC's website in the table below:

List of outbreaks of gastro illness as reported by the CDC.

How the CDC Recommends You Keep Healthy

While it might seem that having a number of outbreaks early in the year points to a higher total overall, that might not be the case. In past years, there have often been "streaks" where a number of outbreaks are reported, followed by long stretches with no further issues.

For instance, in 2019 there were five cruises with outbreaks listed on the CDC's website through the first week of April. However, the next outbreak didn't occur until September, about five months later.

And while the chances of you getting sick on the cruise are relatively low, it's always a good idea to follow some simple tips to keep yourself and fellow passengers from getting sick. The CDC recommends all of the following:

  • Wash your hands often, especially before eating/drinking and after using the restroom
  • Leave the area if you see someone get sick.
  • If you become ill, report it to the ship's medical staff
  • If you are sick, get plenty of rest and drink water

A couple of other things to note is that the CDC says that hand sanitizer does not work well against norovirus (a common reason behind gastro illness) and instead recommends handwashing. They also mention that you can get the virus from shared surfaces, so it's a good idea to limit contact with common items like serving utensils and handrails when possible.

Overall, the odds of catching the bug are low, but the saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

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