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Planes, Cruise Ships, and Germs

Boost your chances of healthy travel by taking a few preventive steps.

What Doesn't Help?

Does wearing a mask help to protect you from colds and flu on planes? "I think that's going a little overboard. I don't think that's going to make a difference," Brunette says. "It doesn't seem realistic to me that people should be wearing masks on an airplane."

Schaffner doesn't believe that blankets or pillows transmit germs, either. "It's never been shown, and it's highly unlikely," he says. If so, "we would be in a hard place. We would be anxious about staying at hotels and being in any kind of group circumstance, if that were the case."

What about taking popular over-the-counter products, such as Airborne? This herbal cold remedy claims to help prevent colds by boosting the immune system. Its ingredients include vitamin C, zinc, and echinacea.

No need to buy these remedies, according to Schaffner. He says that he's "skeptical" of these types of products because they lack good studies to show effectiveness. "The quip is: 'In God we trust. All others must provide data.'"

Battling Noroviruses on Cruise Ships

If you're on a cruise, don't ruin your trip with much concern about germs, experts say. But realize that in the semi-confined quarters of a cruise ship, contagious illnesses can spread fast, particularly noroviruses. These viruses cause what many call the "stomach flu." Typical symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramping last for one to two days, according to the CDC.

Noroviruses flourish in the winter, but also year round, says Jaret Ames, chief of the CDC Vessel Sanitation Program, which partners with the cruise industry to promote sanitation and minimize the risk of gastrointestinal illness on ships.

Since 2001, more outbreaks of gastrointestinal illness have been reported, including those from noroviruses, according to the CDC's web site. The reasons? More passengers, more ships and an average cruise length of seven days -- ample time for people to mingle and come in contact with infectious germs. However, the risk of gastrointestinal illness is still small: less than 1% during an average week-long cruise, the CDC says.

Once noroviruses contaminate surfaces, some may remain after routine cleaning. "If anything, the importance of hand washing is greater than ever on a cruise ship," Schaffner says. "You may think you're in an idyllic, somewhat protected environment -- you don't have to be as careful. Au contraire. We'd like you to be even more careful than you are at home."

Passengers can fall ill if they touch objects or surfaces contaminated with norovirus -- among them, doorknobs, railings, elevator buttons, or counters -- and then place their hand in their mouth. People can also be infected if they have direct contact with a sick person or consume food or drink that is contaminated with norovirus. If an ill person vomits or has diarrhea in a whirlpool bath or swimming pool, others who come in contact with the water can be infected, too.

Some tips to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal illness on a cruise ship:

  • Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds before eating or smoking. Also wash hands after using the restroom, returning to your cabin, changing a diaper, helping a sick person, or touching surfaces that a lot of other passengers have touched, such as doorknobs and railings.
  • After you've washed your hands in a restroom, dry your hands with a paper towel and use the towel to turn off the faucet and open the door.
  • Washing with warm water and soap is best, but if you can't do so during an excursion, use an alcohol-based gel hand sanitizer that contains 62% ethanol.
  • Notify cruise staff about sick passengers.
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Reviewed on October 31, 2007

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