Mode of travel: health considerations

Mode of travel: health considerations
International Travel and Health 2010
Chapter 2
Mode of travel:
health considerations
The mode of travel is an integral part of the travel experience. According to the
World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), of the 922 million international tourist arrivals in 2008, air transport accounted for about 52% of arrivals and marine
transport 6%. This chapter deals with travel by air and by sea. Travel by air and by
sea expose passengers to a number of factors that may have an impact on health.
To facilitate use by a wide readership, technical terms have been used sparingly.
Medical professionals needing more detailed information are referred to the web
site of the Aerospace Medical Association ( and the web site of
the International Maritime Health Association (
Travel by air
The volume of air traffic has risen steeply in recent years and “frequent flyers”
now make up a substantial proportion of the travelling public. The number of
long-distance flights has increased. According to the International Civil Aviation
Organization, passenger traffic is projected to double between 2006 and 2020.
Air travel, particularly over long distances, exposes passengers to a number of
factors that may have an effect on their health and well-being. Passengers with
pre-existing health problems and those receiving medical care are more likely to
be affected and should consult their doctor or a travel medicine clinic in good
time before travelling. Health risks associated with air travel can be minimized if
the traveller plans carefully and takes some simple precautions before, during and
after the flight. An explanation of the various factors that may affect the health
and well-being of air travellers follows.
Cabin air pressure
Although aircraft cabins are pressurized, cabin air pressure at cruising altitude
is lower than air pressure at sea level. At typical cruising altitudes in the range
11 000–12 200 m (36 000–40 000 feet), air pressure in the cabin is equivalent to
the outside air pressure at 1800–2400 m (6000–8000 feet) above sea level. As a
consequence, less oxygen is taken up by the blood (hypoxia) and gases within the
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
body expand. The effects of reduced cabin air pressure are usually well tolerated
by healthy passengers.
Oxygen and hypoxia
Cabin air contains ample oxygen for healthy passengers and crew. However, because
cabin air pressure is relatively low, the amount of oxygen carried in the blood is reduced
compared with sea level. Passengers with certain medical conditions, particularly
heart and lung diseases and blood disorders such as anaemia (in particular sickle-celle
anaemia), may not tolerate this reduced oxygen level (hypoxia) very well. Some of
these passengers are able to travel safely if arrangements are made with the airline for
the provision of an additional oxygen supply during flight. However, because regulations and practices differ from country to country and between airlines, it is strongly
recommended that these patients, especially those who want to carry their own oxygen,
contact the airline early in their travel plan. An additional charge is often levied on
passengers who require supplemental oxygen to be provided by the airline.
Gas expansion
As the aircraft climbs, the decreasing cabin air pressure causes gases to expand.
Similarly, as the aircraft descends, the increasing pressure in the cabin causes gases
to contract. These changes may have effects where gas is trapped in the body.
Gas expansion during the climb causes air to escape from the middle ear and
the sinuses, usually without causing problems. This airflow can sometimes be
perceived as a “popping” sensation in the ears. As the aircraft descends, air must
flow back into the middle ear and sinuses in order to equalize pressure differences.
If this does not happen, the ears or sinuses may feel as if they are blocked and, if
the pressure is not equalized, pain can result. Swallowing, chewing or yawning
(“clearing the ears”) will usually relieve any discomfort. As soon as it is recognized
that the problem will not resolve, a short forceful expiration against a pinched
nose and closed mouth (Valsalva manoeuvre) should be tried and will usually
help. For infants, feeding or giving a pacifier (dummy) to stimulate swallowing
may reduce the symptoms.
Individuals with ear, nose and sinus infections should avoid flying because pain
and injury may result from the inability to equalize pressure differences. If travel
cannot be avoided, the use of decongestant nasal drops shortly before the flight
and again before descent may be helpful.
As the aircraft climbs, expansion of gas in the abdomen can cause discomfort,
although this is usually mild.
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Some forms of surgery and other medical treatments or diagnostic tests may introduce air or other gas into a body cavity. Examples include abdominal surgery
and eye treatment for a detached retina. Passengers who have recently undergone
such a procedure should ask a travel medicine physician or their treating physician
how long they should wait before undertaking air travel.
Cabin humidity and dehydration
The humidity in aircraft cabins is low, usually less than 20% (humidity in
the home is normally over 30%). Low humidity may cause skin dryness and
discomfort of the eyes, mouth, nose and exposed skin but presents no risk to
health. Using a skin moisturizing lotion, saline nasal spray to moisturize the
nasal passages, and spectacles rather than contact lenses can relieve or prevent
discomfort. The available evidence has not shown the low humidity to cause
internal dehydration and there is no need to drink more than useful.However,
since caffeine and alcohol can themselves contribute to dehydration, it is wise
to limit consumption of such products during long flights (also see sections on
motion sickness and jet lag).
Ozone is a form of oxygen (with three, rather than two, atoms to the molecule)
that occurs in the upper atmosphere and may enter the aircraft cabin together
with the fresh-air supply. In older aircraft, it was found that the levels of ozone
in cabin air could sometimes lead to irritation of the lungs, eyes and nasal tissues.
Ozone is broken down by heat and a significant amount of ozone is removed by
the compressors (in the aircraft engines) that provide pressurized air for the cabin.
In addition, most modern long-haul jet aircraft are fitted with equipment (catalytic
converters) that breaks down any remaining ozone.
Cosmic radiation
Cosmic radiation is made up of radiation that comes from the sun and from outer
space. The Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field are natural shields and cosmic
radiation levels are therefore lower at lower altitudes. Cosmic radiation is more
intense over polar regions than over the equator because of the shape of the Earth’s
magnetic field and the “flattening” of the atmosphere over the poles.
The population is continually exposed to natural background radiation from
soil, rock and building materials as well as from cosmic radiation that reaches the
Earth’s surface. Although cosmic radiation levels are higher at aircraft cruising
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
altitudes than at sea level, research has not shown any significant health effects
for either passengers or crew.
Motion sickness
Except in the case of severe turbulence, travellers by air rarely suffer from motion
(travel) sickness. Those who do suffer should request a seat in the mid-section of
the cabin where movements are less pronounced, and keep the motion sickness
bag, provided at each seat, readily accessible. They should also consult their doctor
or travel medicine physician about medication that can be taken before flying to
help prevent problems, and should avoid drinking alcohol during the flight and
for 24 h beforehand.
Immobility, circulatory problems and deep vein thrombosis
Contraction of muscles is an important factor in helping to keep blood flowing
through the veins, particularly in the legs. Prolonged immobility, especially when
seated, can lead to pooling of blood in the legs, which in turn may cause swelling,
stiffness and discomfort.
It is known that immobility is one of the factors that may lead to the development
of a blood clot in a deep vein so-called “deep vein thrombosis” or DVT. Research
has shown that DVT can occur as a result of prolonged immobility, for instance
during long-distance travel, whether by car, bus, train or air. WHO set up a major
research study, WHO Research Into Global Hazards of Travel (WRIGHT), in
order to establish whether the risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) is increased
by air travel, to determine the magnitude of the risk and the effect of other factors on the risk, and to study the effect of preventive measures. The findings of
the epidemiological studies indicate that the risk of venous thromboembolism is
increased 2 to 3-fold after long-haul flights (>4 h) and also with other forms of
travel involving prolonged seated immobility. The risk increases with the duration of travel and with multiple flights within a short period. In absolute terms,
an average of 1 passenger in 4500 will suffer from venous thromboembolism after
a long-haul flight.
In most cases of DVT, the clots are small and do not cause any symptoms. The body
is able to gradually break down the clots and there are no long-term effects. Larger
clots may cause symptoms such as swelling of the leg, tenderness, soreness and
pain. Occasionally a piece of a clot may break off and travel with the bloodstream,
to become lodged in the lungs. This is known as pulmonary embolism and may
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cause chest pain, shortness of breath and, in severe cases, sudden death. This can
occur many hours or even days after the formation of the clot in the leg.
The risk of developing DVT when travelling is increased in the presence of other
risk factors, including:
— previous DVT or pulmonary embolism
— history of DVT or pulmonary embolism in a close family member
— use of estrogen therapy – oral contraceptives (“the pill”) or hormonereplacement therapy (HRT)
— pregnancy
— recent surgery or trauma, particularly to the abdomen, pelvic region or
— cancer
— obesity
— some inherited blood-clotting abnormalities.
DVT occurs more commonly in older people. Some researchers have suggested
that there may be a risk from smoking and from varicose veins.
It is advisable for people with one or more of these risk factors to seek specific
medical advice from their doctor or a travel medicine clinic in good time before
embarking on a flight of four or more hours.
The benefits of most precautionary measures in passengers at particular risk for
DVT are unproven and some might even result in harm. Further studies to identify
effective preventive measures are ongoing. However, some general advice for such
passengers is given here.
Moving around the cabin during long flights will help to reduce any period of
prolonged immobility, although this may not always be possible. Moreover,
any potential health benefits must be balanced against the risk of injury if the
aircraft were to experience sudden turbulence. A regular trip to the bathroom,
e.g. every 2–3 h, is a reasonable measure.
Many airlines provide helpful advice on exercises that can be carried out in the
seat during flight. Exercise of the calf muscles can stimulate the circulation, alleviate discomfort, fatigue and stiffness, and may reduce the risk of developing
Hand luggage should not be placed where it restricts movement of the legs and
feet, and clothing should be loose and comfortable.
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
In view of the clear risk of significant side-effects and absence of clear evidence
of benefit, passengers are advised not to use aspirin specifically for the prevention of travel-related DVT.
Those travellers at greatest risk of developing DVT may be prescribed specific
treatments and should consult their doctor for further advice.
Divers should avoid flying soon after diving because of the risk that the reduced
cabin pressure may lead to decompression sickness (more commonly called “the
bends”). It is recommended that they do not fly until at least 12 h after the last
dive; this period should be extended to 24 h after multiple dives or after diving
that requires decompression stops during ascent to the surface. Passengers who
undertake recreational diving before flying should seek specialist advice from diving
schools. Divers Alert Network is an excellent source of information with a good
Frequently Asked Questions section (
Default.aspx) as well as an emergency hotline number.
Jet lag
Jet lag is the term used for the symptoms caused by the disruption of the body’s
“internal clock” and the approximate 24-hour (circadian) rhythms it controls.
Disruption occurs when crossing multiple time zones, i.e. when flying east to
west or west to east. Jet lag may lead to indigestion and disturbance of bowel
function, general malaise, daytime sleepiness, difficulty in sleeping at night, and
reduced physical and mental performance. Its effects are often combined with
tiredness caused by the journey itself. Jet lag symptoms gradually wear off as the
body adapts to the new time zone.
Jet lag cannot be prevented but there are ways of reducing its effects (see below).
Travellers who take medication according to a strict timetable (e.g. insulin, oral
contraceptives) should seek medical advice from their doctor or a travel medicine
clinic before their journey.
General measures to reduce the effects of jet lag
Be as well rested as possible before departure, and rest during the flight. Short
naps can be helpful. Depending on the time of day you may be able to rest
during the flight. Short naps (less than 20 mn) can be helpful.
Eat light meals and limit consumption of alcohol. Alcohol increases urine output, with the result that sleep may be disturbed by the need to urinate. While it
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can accelerate the onset of sleep, alcohol impairs the quality of sleep, making it
less restful. The after-effects of excessive consumption of alcohol (“hangover”)
can exacerbate the effects of jet lag and travel fatigue. Alcohol should therefore
be consumed in moderation, if at all, before and during the flight. Caffeine
should be limited to normal amounts and avoided within a few hours of an
expected period of sleep. If coffee is drunk during the daytime, small amounts
every two hours or so are preferable to a single large cup.
At the destination, try to create the right conditions when preparing for sleep
and to get as much sleep in every 24 h as normal. A minimum block of 4 h’ sleep
during the local night – known as “anchor sleep” – is thought to be necessary to
allow the body’s internal clock to adapt to the new time zone. If possible, make
up the total sleep time by taking naps during the day in response to feelings
of sleepiness. When taking a nap during the day, eyeshades and earplugs may
help. Exercise during the day may help to promote sleep, but avoid strenuous
exercise immediately before trying to sleep.
The cycle of light and dark is one of the most important factors in setting the
body’s internal clock. Exposure to daylight, preferably bright sunlight, at the
destination will usually help adaptation. When flying west, exposure to daylight in the evening and avoidance in the morning (e.g. by using eye shades or
dark glasses) may be helpful; flying east, exposure to light in the morning and
avoidance in the evening are to be recommended.
Sleep patterns may also be helped by temperature control. When flying west,
a warm shower in the evening helps with staying awake; when flying east, a
cool shower in the evening is recommended to facilitate sleep.
Short-acting sleeping pills may be helpful. They should be used only in accordance with medical advice and should not normally be taken during the flight,
as they may increase immobility and therefore the risk of developing DVT.
Melatonin is available in some countries. It is normally sold as a food supplement and therefore is not subject to the same strict control as medications
(for example, it has not been approved for use as a medication in the United
States, but can be sold as a food supplement). The timing and effective dosage
of melatonin have not been fully evaluated and its side-effects, particularly in
long-term use, are unknown. Moreover, manufacturing methods are not standardized: the dose per tablet can be very variable and some harmful compounds
may be present. For these reasons, melatonin cannot be recommended.
Trying to adjust to local time for short trips of up to 2–3 days may not be the
best coping strategy, because the body clock may not have an opportunity to
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
synchronize to the new time zone, and re-synchronization to the home time
zone may be delayed after the return flight. If in doubt, seek specialist travel
medicine advice.
Individuals react in different ways to time zone changes. Frequent flyers should
learn how their own bodies respond and adopt habits accordingly. Advice from
a travel medicine clinic may help in formulating an effective coping strategy.
Psychological aspects
Stress, fear of flying (flight phobia), air rage and other psychological aspects of air
travel are detailed in Chapter 10.
Travellers with medical conditions or special needs
Airlines have the right to refuse to carry passengers with conditions that may
worsen, or have serious consequences, during the flight. They may require medical
clearance from their medical department/adviser if there is an indication that a passenger could be suffering from any disease or physical or mental condition that:
— may be considered a potential hazard to the safety of the aircraft;
— adversely affects the welfare and comfort of the other passengers and/or
crew members;
— requires medical attention and/or special equipment during the flight;
— may be aggravated by the flight.
If cabin crew suspect before departure that a passenger may be ill, the aircraft’s
captain will be informed and a decision taken as to whether the passenger is fit to
travel, needs medical attention or presents a danger to other passengers and crew
or to the safety of the aircraft.
Although this chapter provides some general guidelines on conditions that may
require medical clearance in advance, airline policies vary and requirements should
always be checked at the time of, or before, booking the flight. A good place to
find information is often the airline’s own web site.
A fit and healthy baby can travel by air 48 h after birth, but it is preferable to wait
until the age of 7 days. Until their organs have developed properly and stabilized,
premature babies should always undergo a medical clearance before travelling by
air. Changes in cabin air pressure may upset infants; this can be helped by feeding
or giving a pacifier (dummy) to stimulate swallowing.
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Pregnant women
Pregnant women can normally travel safely by air, but most airlines restrict
travel in late pregnancy. Typical guidelines for a woman with an uncomplicated
pregnancy are:
— after the 28th week of pregnancy, a letter from a doctor or midwife should
be carried, confirming the expected date of delivery and that the pregnancy
is normal;
— for single pregnancies, flying is permitted up to the end of the 36th week;
— for multiple pregnancies, flying is permitted up to the end of the 32nd week.
Each case of complicated pregnancy requires medical clearance.
Pre-existing illness
Most people with medical conditions are able to travel safely by air, provided
that necessary precautions, such as the need for additional oxygen supply, are
considered in advance.
Those who have underlying health problems such as cancer, heart or lung disease,
anaemia and diabetes, who are on any form of regular medication or treatment,
who have recently had surgery or been in hospital, or who are concerned about
their fitness to travel for any other reason should consult their doctor or a travel
medicine clinic before deciding to travel by air.
Medication that may be required during the journey, or soon after arrival, should
be carried in the hand luggage. It is also advisable to carry a copy of the prescription in case the medication is lost, additional supplies are needed or security checks
require proof of purpose (Chapter 1).
Frequent travellers with medical conditions
A frequent traveller who has a permanent and stable underlying health problem
may obtain a frequent traveller’s medical card (or equivalent) from the medical
or reservation department of many airlines. This card is accepted, under specified
conditions, as proof of medical clearance and for identification of the holder’s
medical condition.
Dental/oral surgery
Recent dental procedures such as fillings are not usually a contraindication to flying. However, unfinished root canal treatment and dental abscesses are reasons for
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
caution, and it is recommended that each individual seek advice with regard to travel
plans from the surgeon or dental practitioner most familiar with their case.
Security issues
Security checks can cause concerns for travellers who have been fitted with metal
devices such as artificial joints, pacemakers or internal automatic defibrillators.
Some pacemakers may be affected by modern security screening equipment and
any traveller with a pacemaker should carry a letter from their doctor.
Almost all airlines now ban smoking on board. Some smokers may find this
stressful, particularly during long flights, and should discuss the issue with a
doctor before travelling. Nicotine replacement patches or chewing gum containing nicotine may be helpful during the flight and the use of other medication or
techniques may also be considered.
Travellers with disabilities
A physical disability is not usually a contraindication for travel. A passenger who is
unable to look after his or her own needs during the flight (including use of the toilet
and transfer from wheelchair to seat and vice versa) will need to be accompanied
by an escort able to provide all necessary assistance. The cabin crew are generally
not permitted to provide such assistance and a traveller who requires it but does
not have a suitable escort may not be permitted to travel. Travellers confined to
wheelchairs should be advised against deliberately restricting fluid intake before
or during travel as a means of avoiding use of the toilet during flights, as this may
be detrimental to overall health.
Airlines have regulations on conditions of travel for passengers with disabilities.
Disabled passengers should contact airlines for guidance in advance of travel; the
airlines’ own web sites often give useful information.
Transmission of communicable diseases on aircraft
Research has shown that there is very little risk of any communicable disease being
transmitted on board an aircraft.
The quality of aircraft cabin air is carefully controlled. Ventilation rates provide
a total change of air 20–30 times per hour. Most modern aircraft have recirculation systems, which recycle up to 50% of cabin air. The recirculated air is usually
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passed through HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, of the type used
in hospital operating theatres and intensive care units, which trap dust particles,
bacteria, fungi and viruses.
Transmission of infection may occur between passengers who are seated in the
same area of an aircraft, usually as a result of the infected person coughing or
sneezing or by touch (direct contact or contact with the same parts of the aircraft
cabin and furnishings that other passengers touch). This is no different from any
other situation in which people are close to each other, such as on a train or bus
or in a theatre. Highly contagious conditions, such as influenza, are more likely
to be spread to other passengers in situations where the aircraft ventilation system
is not operating. An auxiliary power unit is normally used to provide ventilation
where the aircraft is on the ground, before the main engines are started, but occasionally this is not operated for environmental (noise) or technical reasons. In
such cases, when associated with a prolonged delay, passengers may be temporarily
Transmission of tuberculosis (TB) on board commercial aircraft during longdistance flights was reported during the 1980s, but no case of active TB disease
resulting from exposure on board has been identified subsequently. Nevertheless,
increasing air travel and the emergence of drug-resistant TB require continuing
vigilance to avoid the spread of infection during air travel. Further information
on TB and air travel may be found in the 2008 edition of the WHO publication
Tuberculosis and air travel: guidelines for prevention and control.
During the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2003, the
risk of transmission of the disease in aircraft was very low.
To minimize the risk of passing on infections, passengers who are unwell, particularly if they have a fever, should delay their journey until they have recovered.
Passengers with a known active communicable disease should not travel by air.
Airlines may deny boarding to passengers who appear to be infected with a communicable disease.
Aircraft disinsection
Many countries require disinsection of aircraft (to kill insects) arriving from
countries where diseases that are spread by insects, such as malaria and yellow
fever, occur. There have been a number of cases of malaria affecting individuals
who live or work in the vicinity of airports in countries where malaria is not present, thought to be due to the escape of malaria-carrying mosquitoes transported
on aircraft. Some countries, e.g. Australia and New Zealand, routinely carry out
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disinsection to prevent the inadvertent introduction of species that may harm
their agriculture.
Disinsection is a public health measure that is mandated by the International
Health Regulations (Annex 2). It involves treatment of the interior of the aircraft
with insecticides specified by WHO. The different procedures currently in use
are as follows:
— treatment of the interior of the aircraft using a quick-acting insecticide spray
immediately before take-off, with the passengers on board;
— treatment of the interior of the aircraft on the ground before passengers
come on board, using a residual-insecticide aerosol, plus additional in-flight
treatment with a quick-acting spray shortly before landing;
— regular application of a residual insecticide to all internal surfaces of the
aircraft, except those in food preparation areas.
Travellers are sometimes concerned about their exposure to insecticide sprays
during air travel, and some have reported feeling unwell after spraying of aircraft for
disinsection. However, WHO has found no evidence that the specified insecticide
sprays are harmful to human health when used as recommended.
Medical assistance on board
Airlines are required to provide minimum levels of medical equipment on aircraft
and to train all cabin crew in first aid. The equipment carried varies, with many
airlines carrying more than the minimum level of equipment required by the
regulations. Equipment carried on a typical international flight would include:
— one or more first-aid kits, to be used by the crew;
— a medical kit, normally to be used by a doctor or other qualified person, to
treat in-flight medical emergencies.
An automated external defibrillator (AED), to be used by the crew in case of
cardiac arrest, is also carried by several airlines.
Cabin crew are trained in the use of first-aid equipment and in carrying out first-aid
and resuscitation procedures. They are usually also trained to recognize a range of
medical conditions that may cause emergencies on board and to act appropriately
to manage these.
In addition, many airlines have facilities to enable crew to contact a medical expert
at a ground-based response centre for advice on how to manage in-flight medical
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Contraindications to air travel
Travel by air is normally contraindicated in the following cases:
Infants less than 48 h old.
Women after the 36th week of pregnancy (32nd week for multiple pregnancies).
Those suffering from:
angina pectoris or chest pain at rest;
any active communicable disease;
decompression sickness after diving;
increased intracranial pressure due to haemorrhage, trauma or infection;
infections of the sinuses or of the ear and nose, particularly if the Eustachian
tube is blocked;
recent myocardial infarction and stroke (elapsed time since the event depending on severity of illness and duration of travel);
recent surgery or injury where trapped air or gas may be present, especially
abdominal trauma and gastrointestinal surgery, craniofacial and ocular
injuries, brain operations, and eye operations involving penetration of the
severe chronic respiratory disease, breathlessness at rest, or unresolved
sickle-cell anemia;
psychotic illness, except when fully controlled.
The above list is not comprehensive, and fitness for travel should be decided on
a case-by-case basis.
Travel by sea
This section was prepared in collaboration with the International Society of Travel
The passenger shipping industry (cruise ships and ferries) has expanded considerably in recent decades. In 2008, 13 million passengers worldwide travelled on cruise
ships. Cruise itineraries cover all continents, including areas that are not easily
accessible by other means of travel. The average duration of a cruise is about seven
days, but cruise voyages can last from several hours to several months. A typical
cruise ship now carries up to 3000 passengers and 1000 crew.
The revised International Health Regulations address health requirements for
ship operations and construction. There are global standards regarding ship and
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port sanitation and disease surveillance, as well as response to infectious diseases.
Guidance is given on provision of safe water and food, on vector and rodent control, and on waste disposal. According to Article 8 of the International Labour
Organization Convention (No. 164) “Concerning Health Protection and Medical Care for Seafarers” (1987), vessels carrying more than 100 crew members on
an international voyage of 3 days or longer must provide a physician for care of
the crew. These regulations do not apply to passenger vessels and ferries sailing
for less than 3 days, even though the number of crew and passengers may exceed
1000. Ferries often do not have an emergency room but a ship’s officer or a nurse
is designated to provide medical help. The contents of the ship’s medical chest
must be in accordance with the international recommendations and national laws
for ocean-going trade vessels, but there are no special requirements for additional
drugs for passenger ships.
The average traveller on a cruise line is 45–50 years of age. Senior citizens represent
about one-third of passengers. Cruises of longer duration often attract older travellers, a group likely to have more chronic medical problems, such as heart and lung
disease. More than half of all emergency visits to health clinics on board are made
by passengers who are over 65 years of age; the most common health problems are
respiratory tract infection, injuries, motion sickness and gastrointestinal illness.
Extended periods away from home, especially days at sea, make it essential for
passengers to stock up with sufficient medical supplies. Prescription medicines
should be carried in the original packages or containers, together with a letter from
a medical practitioner attesting to the traveller’s need for those medicines. Cruise
ship travellers who may require particular medical treatment should consult their
health-care providers before booking.
It is important to view a ship’s medical facility as an infirmary and not as a hospital. Although most of the medical conditions that arise aboard ship can be treated
as they would be at an ambulatory care centre at home, more severe problems
may require the patient to be treated in a fully staffed and equipped land-based
hospital after stabilization on the ship. Knowledge of the type and quality of
medical facilities along the itinerary is important to determine whether travellers
or crew members can be sent ashore for additional care or need to be evacuated
by air back to the home port. Most cruise vessels do not have assigned space for
a dental office, and very few have a resident dentist.
The rapid movement of cruise ships from one port to another, with the likelihood
of wide variations in sanitation standards and infectious disease exposure risks,
often results in the introduction of communicable diseases by embarking passengers and crew members. In the relatively closed and crowded environment of
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a ship, disease may spread to other passengers and crew members; diseases may
also be disseminated to the home communities of disembarking passengers and
crew members. More than 100 disease outbreaks associated with ships have been
identified in the past 30 years. This is probably an underestimate because many
outbreaks are not reported and some may go undetected. Outbreaks of measles,
rubella, varicella, meningococcal meningitis, hepatitis A, legionellosis, and respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses among ship travellers have been reported. Such
outbreaks are of concern because of their potentially serious health consequences
and high costs to the industry. In recent years, influenza and norovirus outbreaks
have been public health challenges for the cruise industry.
Communicable diseases
Gastrointestinal disease
Most of the detected gastrointestinal disease outbreaks associated with cruise
ships have been linked to food or water consumed on board ship. Factors that
have contributed to outbreaks include contaminated bunkered water, inadequate
disinfection of water, potable water contaminated by sewage on ship, poor design
and construction of storage tanks for potable water, deficiencies in food handling,
preparation and cooking, and use of seawater in the galley.
Norovirus is the most common pathogen implicated in outbreaks. Between
1 January and 5 July 2006, 42 reported outbreaks of gastroenteritis on 13 different
cruise ships sailing in
European waters were confirmed or suspected to be caused by norovirus. Symptoms often start with sudden onset of vomiting and/or diarrhoea. There may be
fever, abdominal cramps and malaise. The virus can spread in food or water or
from person to person; it is highly infectious and in an outbreak on a cruise ship,
more than 80% of the passengers can be affected. To prevent or reduce outbreaks
of gastroenteritis caused by norovirus, ships are enhancing food and water sanitation measures and disinfection of surfaces; more ships are providing hand gel
dispensers at strategic locations throughout the ship and passengers and crew
are urged to use them. Some cruise companies ask that those who present with
gastrointestinal symptoms at on-board medical centres are put into isolation until
at least 24 h after their last symptoms, and some ships also isolate asymptomatic
contacts for 24 h.
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
Influenza and other respiratory tract infections
Respiratory tract infections are frequent among cruise-ship travellers. Travellers
from areas of the world where influenza viruses are in seasonal circulation may
introduce such viruses to regions of the world where influenza is not in seasonal
circulation. Crew members who serve passengers may become reservoirs for influenza infection and may transmit disease to passengers on subsequent cruises.
Legionellosis (legionnaires’ disease) is a potentially fatal form of pneumonia, first
recognized in 1976. The disease is normally contracted by inhaling Legionella
bacteria deep into the lungs. Legionella species can be found in tiny droplets of
water (aerosols) or in droplet nuclei (the particles left after water has evaporated).
More than 50 incidents of legionellosis, involving over 200 cases, have been associated with ships during the past three decades. For example, an outbreak of
legionellosis occurred on a single cruise ship in 1994, resulting in 50 passengers
becoming affected on nine separate cruises, with one death. The disease was linked
to a whirlpool spa on the ship. Other sources have been potable water supplies
and exposures during port layovers.
Prevention and control depend on proper disinfection, filtration and storage of
source water, designing piping systems without dead ends. Regular cleaning and
disinfection of spas are required to reduce the risk of legionellosis on ships.
Other communicable diseases
The outbreaks of varicella and rubella that have occurred underscore the need
for passengers to make sure that they are up to date with routine vaccinations;
major cruise ship companies are requesting that their crew be vaccinated against
varicella and rubella.
Noncommunicable diseases
Because of temperature and weather variations, changes in diet and physical activities, the cruise ship traveller – particularly the elderly traveller – may experience
worsening of existing chronic health conditions. Cardiovascular events are the most
common cause of mortality on cruise ships. Motion sickness can occur, especially
on smaller vessels. Injuries and dental emergencies are also frequently reported.
International Travel and Health 2010
The risk of communicable and noncommunicable diseases among cruise ship passengers and crew members is difficult to quantify because of the broad spectrum
of cruise ship experiences, the variety of destinations and the limited available
data. In general, cruise ship travellers should:
Consult their health-care provider, a physician or travel health specialist before embarking. This may provide prevention guidelines and immunizations,
specifically taking into account:
— the health status of the cruise ship traveller, the duration of travel, the
countries to be visited and likely activities ashore;
— all routinely recommended age- and medical condition-specific immunizations;
— influenza vaccination as available regardless of season, particularly if the
traveller belongs to one of the groups for whom annual vaccination against
influenza is routinely recommended (Chapter 6); the need to provide a
prescription for anti-influenza medication, for treatment or prophylaxis
can then be discussed;
— immunization and other (e.g. malaria) recommendations that apply to each
country on the itinerary;
— medication against motion sickness, particularly if the traveller is prone to
motion sickness.
See a dentist to make sure they have good oral health and no active problems.
Consider purchasing a special health insurance policy for trip cancellation,
additional medical coverage and/or medical evacuation if necessary.
Abstain to embark on their cruise if they are symptomatic with acute illness.
Carry all prescription medicines in the original packet or container, together
with a physician’s letter (Chapter 1).
Carry out frequent hand-washing, either with soap and water or using an
alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
Avoid self-medication in the case of diarrhoea or high fever while on board,
but report immediately to the ship’s medical service.
Further reading
Travel by air
General information related to air travel may be found on the web site of the International
Civil Aviation Organization (
Chapter 2. MODE OF TRAVEL: health considerations
Medical Guidelines Task Force. Medical guidelines for airline travel, 2nd ed. Alexandria,
VA, Aerospace Medical Association, 2003 (available at
Mendis S, Yach D, Alwan Al. Air travel and venous thromboembolism. Bulletin of the World
Health Organization, 2002, 80(5):403–406.
Summary of SARS and air travel. Geneva, World Health Organization, 23 May 2003 (available
The impact of flying on passenger health: a guide for healthcare professionals, London, British
Medical Association, Board of Science and Education, 2004 (available at
Tourism highlights: 2006 edition. Madrid, World Tourism Organization, 2006 (available at
Tuberculosis and air travel: guidelines for prevention and control, 3rd ed. Geneva, World
Health Organization, 2008 (WHO/HTM/TB/2008.399) (available at
WHO Research into global hazards of travel (WRIGHT) project: final report of phase I. Geneva, World Health Organization, 2007 (available at
Travel by sea
General information related to travel by seas may be found at the following web sites:
American College of Emergency Physicians:
International Council of Cruise Lines:
International Maritime Health Association:
Miller JM et al. Cruise ships: high-risk passengers and the global spread of new influenza
viruses. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 2000, 31:433–438.
Nikolic N et al. Acute gastroenteritis at sea and outbreaks associated with cruises. In:
Ericsson CD, DuPont HL, Steffen R, eds. Traveller’s diarrhea. Hamilton, BC Decker Inc.,
Sherman CR. Motion sickness: review of causes and preventive strategies. Journal of Travel
Medicine, 2002, 9:251–256.
Ship sanitation and health. Geneva, World Health organization, February 2002 (available
Smith A. Cruise ship medicine. In: Dawood R, ed. Travellers’ health. Oxford, Oxford
University Press, 2002:277–289.
WHO International medical guide for ships: including the ship’s medicine chest, 3rd ed.
Geneva, World Health Organization, 2007 (available at:
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