Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content
Content starts here
CLOSE ×

Search

Leaving AARP.org Website

You are now leaving AARP.org and going to a website that is not operated by AARP. A different privacy policy and terms of service will apply.

Norovirus Cases Are Rising on Cruises. Here’s How You Can Stay Safe

Keep hands clean as stomach bug cases rise

spinner image a man on the deck of a cruise ship with a book in his lap
Railings, seats and tongs are high-touch surfaces on cruises. Wash your hands frequently to limit chances of getting norovirus.
Getty Images

Just as travel has begun to bounce back after the pandemic, cruise ship passengers are facing another threat to their vacation: norovirus.

Thirteen ships so far this year have reported outbreaks of the highly contagious stomach bug, the most since 2012, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly 1,700 passengers have come down with the virus, which causes vomiting, nausea, diarrhea and stomach pain. Not only does it take the joy out of vacation, keeping passengers confined to their stateroom, but for older travelers, there’s a concern of dehydration, doctors say.

spinner image Image Alt Attribute

AARP Membership— $12 for your first year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal

Get instant access to members-only products and hundreds of discounts, a free second membership, and a subscription to AARP the Magazine.

Join Now

The bug thrives in crowded conditions and is spread through food and by touching contaminated surfaces. The easiest way to avoid the ailment is to wash your hands with soap and water after using the bathroom, before eating and after touching surfaces touched by others.

Samuel Mathis, M.D., an assistant professor in the University of Texas Medical Branch Department of Family Medicine, says the resilient virus can live for days and there are plenty of places for it to linger on cruise ships: “Door handles, stairway banisters, tongs for food at the buffet, things that a lot of people touch that aren’t cleaned between each use.”

And washing your own hands isn’t enough. Mathis says older passengers and others traveling with family face a risk from others in their party. For example, if grandchildren aren’t careful hand-washers, they can easily infect their grandparents and others.

Mathis, who works in Galveston, Texas, a cruise port, has seen passengers with norovirus. He says that while the virus itself is uncomfortable, it isn’t typically dangerous. “The biggest risk for almost everyone — but especially for seniors — is actually the risk of dehydration: losing all that fluid through nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.”

Symptoms of dehydration include extreme thirst, lack of urination and dizziness when standing, Mathis says.

If passengers come down with a stomach bug, they should contact the ship’s medical clinic, which will monitor for dehydration. In addition, they should stay in their cabin away from people until they are symptom-free for at least 24 hours, Mathis says. “That can be really rough because you’re missing your cruise.”

The most recent norovirus outbreak was reported on the Viking Neptune cruise ship. During its June 6 to June 20 voyage, 110 of the ship’s 838 passengers, or 13.1 percent, were infected. In addition, nine of the 455 crew members were infected.

Travel

Holland America Line

Up to $200 onboard credit on select cruises

See more Travel offers >

“We believe the gastrointestinal illness originated from a shoreside restaurant in Iceland where a group of guests dined during their free time,” the cruise line said in a statement. After docking in New York, the ship was thoroughly cleaned and disinfected, and continued its scheduled sailings.

The CDC regularly inspects cruise ships and monitors the number of outbreaks. This year, norovirus also has been reported on cruises operated by Royal Caribbean International, Celebrity Cruises, Princess Cruises, Holland America and P&O Cruises. The worst year for norovirus was 2006, when 32 ships reported infections, according to the CDC.

Cruise experts say several factors may be contributing to the rise in cases. For one, cruising has soared this year, with the number of passengers expected to surpass the total that sailed in 2019, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.

Letting down their guard

Ashley Kosciolek, senior cruise writer at The Points Guy, a consumer travel website, says that after years of COVID-related precautions, passengers may have let their guard down. 

“People are just so happy to be back, but they’ve gotten a little lax with hygiene. I personally have seen lots of people using the women’s room and not washing their hands. I don’t know if it’s subconscious rebellion or if they don’t realize what could happen.”

Kosciolek says she has made it a practice to wash her hands before going to the buffet, and then washing them again before she eats, since buffet implements aren’t sanitized after each passenger touches them.

Mathis says it might even make sense for passengers to avoid the buffet and dine only at their ship’s sit-down restaurants.

That said, the chances of catching the bug on a cruise ship aren’t particularly high. According to the Cruise Lines Industry Association, the risk each year of getting laboratory-confirmed norovirus during a ship outbreak is about 1 in 5,500. The most common settings for norovirus aren’t even at sea. Over half of all cases originate in long-term health care facilities, according to the CDC, while less than 1 percent of all norovirus cases come from cruise ships.

Kosciolek notes that while cruise ships are required to report outbreaks, many land-based cases go unreported. “It is easy for someone who has never cruised to see these news reports and say, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m never going to cruise because I’m going to get sick.’ ”

Likewise, Mathis says vacationers shouldn’t let the fear of norovirus keep them from taking a vacation.

“I do not suggest that people don’t go on cruises. When proper safety precautions are taken, cruises are fantastic opportunities for individuals to relax, to spend time with friends or family and meet new people. It really just comes down to recognizing there are risks.”

Discover AARP Members Only Access

Join AARP to Continue

Already a Member?

AARP Travel Center

Or Call: 1-800-675-4318

Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid departing date

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Flight 2

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 3

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 4

Enter a valid departing date

Flight 5

Enter a valid departing date

+ Add Another Flight

Enter a valid checking in date

Enter a valid checking out date


Occupants of Room 1:



Occupants of Room 2:



Occupants of Room 3:



Occupants of Room 4:



Occupants of Room 5:



Occupants of Room 6:



Occupants of Room 7:



Occupants of Room 8:


Enter a valid departing date

Enter a valid returning date

Age of children:

Occupants of Room 1:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 2:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 3:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 4:

Age of children:


Occupants of Room 5:

Age of children:

Age of children:

Child under 2 must either sit in laps or in seats:

Enter a valid start date

Enter a valid drop off date

Select a valid to location

Select a month

Enter a valid from date

Enter a valid to date