It’s the word that strikes terror into the heart of every cruiser – norovirus. But how common is it really and what can you do to protect yourself?

The US Centre for Disease Control requires ships to report any outbreak of gastrointestinal illness that affects more than three per cent of the total number of passengers or crew onboard cruise lines. Between 2010 and 2015 the centre recorded 54 norovirus outbreaks on cruise ships affecting over 5,300 passengers.

The lines reporting the most outbreaks were:
Celebrity Cruises – 15
Princess Cruises – 15
Royal Caribbean – 10
Holland America – 10
Cunard – 4

Those numbers sound scary, but lets put them in perspective. In 2013 more than 20 million passengers travelled on more than 400 cruise ships around the world. 1,409 people fell ill on nine ships. That works out to be just one in 14,000 people or 0.007 per cent.

The odds of being struck by lightning in your lifetime are one in 12,000. It’s also worth noting that of the 20 million annual norovirus cases reported in the US each year, only around one per cent occur on cruise ships. You’re much more likely to catch it in hospital, at a restaurant or from your child’s school or daycare centre.

So, even though you’re unlikely to be affected it pays to know what you’re dealing with and how you can protect yourself.

Norovirus is highly contagious and has a short incubation period, meaning people generally fall ill within 24 hours of contracting the virus. It can be transmitted directly from person to person, but the most common way it travels on cruise ships is through indirect contact – think stair railings, elevator buttons or cutlery. The virus causes severe cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and, while it may feel like you are going to die, it’s very unlikely to be fatal. Symptoms last between 24 and 48 hours and the best thing you can do is rest and stay hydrated.

Four ways to prevent the spread of norovirus
1. Wash your hands – properly. Hand sanitising helps but it can’t replace good old fashioned soap and water.
2. Be careful what you touch. Do you really need to run your hand up that railing? Try to push doors or press buttons with your elbows and, if all else fails, keep your hands in your pockets.
3. Limit person to person contact. You might think it’s rude not to shake hands with people, but this is the one situation where the rule doesn’t apply.
4. If you do get sick, most cruise lines will ask you to stay in your room. Do as they say. There’s no reason to infect everyone else onboard and, if you’re really that sick, you probably don’t want to be anywhere else.