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
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
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
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
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
- 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%
Notify cruise staff about sick passengers.