Cruise Facts: Truth About Cruise Ship Illness, Pt. 2

Some people go to great lengths to protect themselves from cruise-borne germs. I’m not talking about the obsessive-compulsive disorder folks who have a legitimate obsession. I’m talking about the sheltered, paranoid folks who no longer enjoy the benefit of healthy immune systems because they have utterly destroyed every bacterium on their persons with anti-bacterial gels, creams, and probably suppositories. Many a cruise guest enters his/her cabin and promptly wipes down every conceivable well-used surface with disinfectant wipes: light switches, door knobs, faucets, and telephone. Some go so far as to place the TV remote control in a quart-sized Ziploc bag and use flushable paper toilet seats.

I don’t blame you, gentle reader. Take a few precautions to feel better. But rest assured, during every home port room stewards disinfect every high-touch item in your cabin, especially in the bathroom. That bathroom has about 400 times less bacteria than your office desk.

Remember: cruise ships are required to clean everything above and beyond what’s required by land businesses. Indeed, as a waiter I bleached restaurant and kitchen stuff daily until my fingers literally split open. Yes, we waiters bleach those menus, salt and pepper shakers, even backs of the chairs. Stewards bleach those elevator buttons and rails. If there does happen to be a virus outbreak on board, we double wash all plates, double wash all glasses, double wash all silver.

Feel safer? You shouldn’t. Bwah-ha-ha!


Why do I taunt you thus? Because you, gentle germophobe, brought loads of bacteria with you. Take your toothbrush, for example. You put it in your mouth twice a day—or at least should. Yet your mouth contains billions of bacteria. According to WebMD, scientists have identified more than 700 different types of microbes in the average human mouth. Every ER doctor knows that bites from human mouths are vastly more prone to infection than those from animals.

But it’s not just your own nastiness on your toothbrush. If you don’t cap that wet toothbrush, you are potentially contaminating it by merely flushing the toilet—paper seat and all. Researchers discovered flushing the toilet sends a spray of bacteria and virus contaminated water droplets into the air. These float around a bathroom for at least two hours after each flush before landing on surfaces—like your toothbrush [University of Arizona Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science].

What about the toiletries you brought with you? Ladies, how often do you disinfect every tube, handle, and applicator in your make-up bag? Guys, you bleachin’ handles on those razors? Fret not. You need bacteria to stay healthy. Why do you think babies put everything in their mouths? They’re building up their immune systems! The paranoia of all-things-filthy is predominantly a First World trait. We are relentlessly barraged by advertising for cleaning products. It’s gone overboard. Why, even Healthline’s website spread the alarm that washed laundry left unattended in a machine, even a few minutes, is like “the fertile crescent for germs.”

That’s right, even cleaning things isn’t enough! Wrap yourself in cellophane right now or you’re doomed!

All joking aside, if you have a compromised immune system, please to take extra precautions. But sensible precautions suffice for most of us. I worked on ships four years and never got sick once, and much of that was when malnourished and utterly sleep-deprived. I survived countless norovirus outbreaks without incident. Am I made of sterner stuff? Most certainly not. Just ask my ex-wife. No, I just made sure I washed my hands PROPERLY. Note the emphasis.


The real culprit behind cruise ship illness is our own bad habits. For cryin’ out loud, wash your hands after using the toilet and before you eat. You’d be shocked how few people actually do that. According to research conducted for the American Society for Microbiology in 2005, even among those who claim to always wash their hands after using the bathroom, they actually only do so 83% of the time. Before eating or handling food it’s only 77%, and the number drops alarmingly from there. After petting a dog or cat it’s as low as 42%, and after coughing or sneezing only 32%. After touching money? Only 21%. What blows my mind is that after changing a diaper the number is only 73%! You’d think people would get that one right. Again, those are numbers from those who think they wash their hands all the time.

Even if you do wash your hands, do you do it properly? You’ve seen TV shows where the surgeon scrubs and scrubs and scrubs all the way up to his elbow. You don’t need to go that far, but you need to use that soap for enough time to let it do its work. On Conquest, the captain even had to publicly humiliate himself by singing “Happy Birthday” to himself on the PA system to drive home how long you should soap those hands. The CDC even says hum it twice. I also humbly recommend sterilization from the inside out: down some shots of booze. It may not help prevent sickness, but it may help prevent you from caring about it.

Former cruise line employee Brian David Bruns is author of the greatest-selling cruise book in history, Cruise Confidential. Four books in all, the Cruise Confidential series has won over a dozen awards, both in the U.S. and overseas, and been featured on ABC’s 20/20 on two separate occasions. 

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