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Woman recovering on cruise ship balcony after feeling a little sick.

Shutterstock, used with permission

Woman recovering on cruise ship balcony after feeling a little sick.

Sick at sea: Getting medical care on a cruise ship

Whether it’s just a bit of motion sickness, or a full-blown stomach virus, it's no fun to be sick at sea. If the cruise you're taking is your trip of a lifetime, it is doubly miserable to be stuck in bed instead of dancing all night, eating to excess and soaking up warm sunshine by the pool.

Articles on travel well-being

What options do you have for medical care on a cruise ship? The news is good, and it’s getting better for passengers.

On a medium to large cruise ship, the crew will include one or two doctors and several nurses who are most likely independent agents and not employees of the cruise line. The ship will also have a full-service infirmary, pharmacy and lab somewhere in the bowels of the ship, on one of the lower decks. The location makes it easier to transport patients off the ship quietly and privately if it becomes necessary.

The doctors on board can diagnose your illness and prescribe basic medications, including antibiotics. They carry a plentiful supply of motion-sickness remedies as well as mild pain medication and antacids. If your condition requires bed rest and monitoring by the ship’s medical crew, there are beds available in the infirmary, IV fluid therapy, defibrillators and heart monitors and other widely used medical equipment.

Pack your own medications for minor ailments 

Although the ship infirmaries are designed for lots of different types of emergencies, the four most common ailments on board ship are:

  • Bruises
  • Indigestion
  • Sea sickness
  • Sunburn
Seasickness can be treated with Dramamine or Bonine, available in several places on most ships

These ailments can all be self-treated if you pack a few over-the-counter medications in an emergency first-aid kit. Bruises and sore muscles can be treated with ice, so pack a few baggies. For indigestion, an antacid such as Tums or Alka-Seltzer may help. Seasickness can be treated with Dramamine or Bonine, available in several places on most ships, including the Purser’s desk. And sunburn can be treated with a cream or spray to alleviate the pain — consider using plenty of sunscreen to prevent it in the first place. 

If injuries are more severe and illnesses keep you cabin bound, it may be necessary to head down to a lower deck and find the infirmary. Injuries such as slip-and-falls are fairly common on cruise ships, especially when the water is rough and the ship experiences “tilt,” or lists from one side to the other. Overindulging on alcoholic drinks is a major cause of falls, so exercise common sense. 

Other maladies often seen in the ship’s infirmary are ear infections, urinary tract infections and norovirus outbreaks. Norovirus, which produces vomiting and diarrhea, has been known to spread rapidly through an entire ship, and the cruise lines are proactively trying to prevent the spread of such viruses by getting everyone on board to wash their hands often and taking other sanitary measures. If you're experiencing symptoms that might be due to norovirus, be sure to head to the infirmary right away.

In case you were wondering, the most common cause of death on a cruise ship is cardiac arrest. Sorry to mention this, but cruise ships do have morgues.

Who pays for the medical care?

Who pays for the medical care on a ship? The short answer is, the passenger does. Treatment on the cruise ship will be added to your SeaPass card or cruise folio. It is generally no more expensive than going to a clinic on land. It will be your responsibility to file a claim with your own insurance carrier when you get home. Just be aware that some policies (including Medicare plans) will not pay for medical costs outside the United States. Transportation to the hospital will be on your dime as well.

You may want to consider buying travel insurance just to be safe. There are three types of travel insurance to consider, and they really don’t add a great deal of money to the cost of travel. Trip cancellation insurance is the most common type, but for medical emergencies, health/accident insurance and medical evacuation insurance are available. Most policies will provide coverage for all three situations for as little as $4 a day. This will help mitigate the costs of medical care and transportation to a hospital. For an extended trip, especially in high-risk areas, this is well worth the price.

It’s no fun to be sick on a cruise, but there are remedies and treatments for most common injuries and ailments. If you can’t treat the problem yourself, just ask any crew member the way to the infirmary.

In our series Wellness & Fitness