You’re finally free. After decades of rearing children, establishing your career, and working your way up the corporate ladder, there’s nothing like retirement and an empty nest to set off on a around-the-world holiday.
Cruise vacations are a popular attraction for seniors, who see cruise ships as either a resort on the sea, or a floating hotel that brings adventures to you at each port of call.
Yet the growth of the cruise industry have been accompanied by reports of infections and epidemics on cruises, often striking either the ship crew or its elderly passengers. It can be an unpleasant experience to fall ill on a ship (imagine being quarantined to your small bunk!) and far more inconvenient if you’re a senior. But why does this happen?
At the root of it all is the stress. But you’d ask: what stress can people experience on a holiday? It’s all physiological: going on a vacation means a change to daily routines – such as meal times, diet, activities, environment, and sleep time.
The longer and farther the trip, the more disruption is dealt to the routine your body has come to love and expect for years. The upshot? Getting more prone to all types of infections, as your body struggles to adjust and falls behind.
Influenza A and B are the leading culprits of upper respiratory tract infections on board ships. Normal signs include running or congested nose, sore throat, cough, and sometimes fever. Seniors, with their less than perfect immune systems, are at risk of having the upper respiratory tract infection progressing to pneumonia.
The norovirus is behind 90% of all epidemic non-bacterial outbreaks gastroenteritis around the world, and a MVP on cruise ships. Symptoms of infection include nausea, vomiting, stomach discomfort cramps, diarrhoea and sometimes fever. Seniors may also suffer from the added complication of dehydration from the vomiting.
The fact that many people are living in the limited space of a ship causes the “crowded environment” factor that makes it easier for one person to infect another in close proximity. And guess what? Both influenza and norovirus microbes are spread through person-to-person contact, and through contaminated shared air and food.
Holiday on the high seas
It’s still possible to keep yourself infection-free, even if it looks like infection is a common threat on cruise ships. Here are some tips to keep your holiday illness-free.
After the cruise, if the infection is not deemed an outbreak, it’s still a good idea to seek your regular doctor for advice.
1. Wash hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water
Going back to the fundamentals of personal hygiene, the most important habit to cultivate is the proper way to wash hands. Studies have shown that the hands pick up the most viruses and bacteria, some of which cannot be washed off by using just water. Using the right hand washing techniques with soap and water will help to lift specks of dirt and oil from the hands, making it easy to wash off. Completing the hand washing procedure by the drying of hands with a paper towel will help to remove more germs and bacteria.
Here are the eight steps to proper hand washing. Remember to wet hands with running water, apply soap and lather well prior to performing the eight steps: -
Step 1: Rubbing both palms together
Step 2: Scrubbing between the fingers
Step 3: Scrubbing the back of the hands
Step 4: Scrubbing the base of both thumbs
Step 5: Scrubbing the back of the fingers
Step 6: Scrubbing of fingernails against both palms
Step 7: Rubbing of soap around the wrists
Step 8: Finally rinse both hands under running water and wipe them dry with a paper towel.
5. Put on a mask when you are unwell
When feeling under the weather, put on a mask to prevent spreading it to the people around you. When putting on a mask, please ensure that both the mouth and nose are fully covered at all times, and should not be reused. The used mask must be properly disposed off in covered bins too. Masks should be replaced after about 8 hours or if it gets moist.
6. Monitor your health closely upon returning
Keep a watchful eye for the development of the following symptoms when you return from any affected country:-
 Cramer EH, et al. 2006. “Epidemiology of gastroenteritis on cruise ships, 2001-2004”, in Am J Prev Med 30(3).
 Brotherton JML, et al. 2006. “A large outbreak of Influenza A and B on a cruise ship causing widespread morbidity”, in Epidemiology and Control 130(2): 263-271.
 Lindesmith L et al. 2003. “Human susceptibility and resistance to Norfolk virus infection”, in Nat Med 9(5): 548-553.