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What if You Have a Medical Emergency on a Cruise?

This post was most recently updated on December 5th, 2023

What happens if you have a medical emergency on a cruise? 

A cruise has long been on your list of things to do, and it’s finally time to make your reservations. You’ve chosen your itinerary and your embarkation port — probably chosen your favorite cruise line as well. But perhaps there’s a little concern about your first-time cruise. After all, there are things to consider.

You’re leaving the country, and you’ll need a passport. You may not know the language of port cities you’ll be visiting. And heaven forbid, there could be a medical emergency while you’re away. How can you be confident that you’ll be okay? How can you be prepared for the worst while allowing yourself to enjoy this lifetime dream? Medical emergencies on a cruise can be stressful and scary, but it’s important to know that cruise ships are prepared to handle them.

What’s available on a cruise ship?

Most cruise lines have onboard medical centers with board-qualified doctors and nurses to take care of medical needs. They are available 24/7 and can set broken bones, stitch cuts, and administer medications. If your condition can be managed on the ship, you’ll receive care at the medical center. This might involve medication, fluids, observation, or minor procedures.

In unforeseen situations like a medical emergency on a cruise, robust travel nurse experience becomes invaluable for providing immediate and skilled healthcare, as explained in materials covering travel nursing expertise.

Medical equipment onboard a cruise ship will generally include lifesaving equipment, such as defibrillators and external pacemakers. Some ships also include x-ray machines, lab equipment, and electrocardiograph machines.

What training do onboard doctors have?

Most cruise doctors are trained to provide cardiac life support and have experience in general emergency or critical care. They will most likely have at least minor surgical skills. If more extensive medical care is needed, ship doctors are qualified to authorize the transfer to a hospital or facility on shore.

What happens in the case of a medical emergency?

First a doctor determines the nature of the emergency and the care required. If he/she makes the decision that the nature of the emergency is severe enough, evacuation will be ordered. The captain will be notified immediately and will confer with the doctor to coordinate changing the course or speed of the ship — or communicating directly with a rescue agency, such as the Coast Guard.

The condition of the patient and where the ship is located will both be considered. A ship may be diverted so a patient can be transferred to a shore medical facility. That transfer can take the form of a speed boat or helicopter, although not all cruise ships have helipads.

What about contracting a contagious disease?

The risk of contracting a contagious disease on a cruise is generally low. Cruise lines are committed to preventing and managing outbreaks. By taking precautions and practicing good hygiene, you can significantly reduce your risk.

TIPS FOR AVOIDING CONTAGIOUS DISEASES:

  • Stay up-to-date on recommended vaccinations
  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly, especially before eating and after using the bathroom.
  • If someone is sick, maintain a distance and avoid close contact.
  • If you feel unwell, inform the medical center right away.
  • Consult your doctor if you have specific concerns about certain diseases or underlying health conditions before your cruise. He/she can advise you on personalized risk factors and preventive measures.

TIPS FOR GENERAL HEALTH:

  • Eat a healthy diet and get enough sleep to help you keep your immune system strong and make you less likely to get sick.
  • Get plenty of fresh air. Staying in confined spaces for too long can increase your risk of getting sick.
  • Stay hydrated and avoid dehydrating activities such as excessive sun exposure or alcohol consumption. Dehydration can worsen any medical condition you may have
What is the worst-case scenario?

It is possible that the nature of the illness/injury may require more comprehensive facilities than are available nearby. In such a case, the patient (or those attending him) may recommend medical repatriation. A patient may prefer to be treated near home, rather than in a foreign country. It may also be preferable to be near other family members who can lend support or where convalescence can take place.

What can you do to be prepared?

Check with the cruise line and specific cruise ship you plan to travel with, to find out what their medical facilities include. If there is a specific medical condition you are concerned about, you should discuss it with the cruise line. You may wish to arrange to have specialized medical equipment brought onboard.

You’ll likely incur charges for medical services onboard. Check your cruise line’s policy and consider travel insurance that covers medical emergencies at sea. In fact, it is highly suggested that you purchase travel insurance, which can help with emergency medical services as well as reimburse you for costs should you have to cancel the rest of your trip. Also, evacuations can be very expensive, especially helicopter transfers. Travel insurance can be crucial here.

ADDITIONAL TIPS:

  • You should always bring a list of medications and doses you are taking. Bring enough of your regular medications and any prescriptions, in case ports are missed due to the emergency. You should also have enough medication in case you are quarantined.
  • Know your medical history: Inform the medical staff of any pre-existing conditions and allergies.
  • Stay calm and cooperate with the ship’s medical team. They are there to help you! Follow their instructions and trust their expertise.

Remember, even though medical emergencies can happen, cruise ships are prepared to respond swiftly and effectively. Staying informed and prepared can help you navigate the situation calmly and get the care you need.

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Hundreds of thousands of passengers cruise every year without any problems at all. I hope you will rest assured that you can be well cared for if a medical emergency arises. Go ahead and book your reservations and enjoy that bucket list cruise!

Interested in more about cruising? Check out these quick reads:

First cruise at 80?

How to Prepare for a Cruise

Five Essential Tips for a Cruise With Children

Cruise Tips Mythbuster

What’s it Like to Come Home from Your First Cruise

medical emergency

12 thoughts on “What if You Have a Medical Emergency on a Cruise?

  1. Linda

    We cruise a lot. And probably take it for granted that the medical services will meet our needs. Thanks for this comprehensive view. My concern is always less about the care on the ship. Than being transferred to the closest port – which may have quite sub-standard medical services. We always buy medical insurance so we can be moved if required. Luckily, we have only had to visit the ship doctor for minor issues. But it was REALLY expensive! Good thing we had insurance.

  2. Kavita Favelle

    We had a passenger with serious medical issues on a cruise to the Antarctic. Unfortunately, the doctor was quite experienced (this was his first trip on the cruise ship) and although he suggested that the passenger leave the cruise when we were at the Falklands, where better medical treatment was available not to mention flights to specialist hospitals, the passenger said she didn’t want to miss the rest of the trip and he acquiesced. What that resulted in was all the passengers missing the second half of the trip when she took a turn for the worse and we had to divert to a base where a flight could come in to evacuate her, which took some days. That extra waiting time meant that she was not able to get the more specialist help she needed in time, and she deteriorated. My takeaway from this, apart from sorrow for both passenger and doctor, was to realise that while onboard health facilities are actually very good these days, that it’s better to play safe than sorry when something unexpected happens that the onboard doctor feels is best treated on shore.

  3. Medha Verma

    That is a pretty interesting post to read. I’ve been on a cruise ship only once and somehow never really thought about what would happen should there be a medical emergency. Glad to know that they have majority of equipment on board, at least to take care of fractures and all. Also, if something more serious happens, they would call the coast guard or speed up to the nearest port!

  4. Christina

    It’s essential to have travel insurance when you travel, especially if you’re going on a cruise. I’d hate to think what would happen if you were in, say, Antarctica and had to be airlifted out! The cost would be astronomical.

  5. Vicky and Buddy

    This is something I’m sure most people don’t think of, so I’m glad you brought it up. I feel pretty confident that doctors on board would be able to handle most situations. Worst case scenario would be having to leave the ship. It’s a good idea to have travel insurance for those situations.

  6. Kate Flores

    I will share it with my family and friends too! Normally, we don’t really think of negative things when traveling but as you said heaven forbid but we must be ready especially on a cruise where you can get help nowhere in the middle of the sea. Thanks Tami!

  7. Julie Joyce

    My husband and I were on a cruise with my Mum and Dad when my husband took ill. He was admitted to the hospital but soon loss feeling in his legs then bladder. We were left on broad for a couple more days and then taken off ship in the middle of the night pitch black along a narrow gang plank and put onto a small fishing boat with no life jackets. My husband was strapped into a sort of sling and was crying out in pain. A doctor from the ship accompanied us to the port side in the Suez Canal.. it was freezing cold and my husband was shivering the doctor removed his jacket to put over him the doctor stood all the way holding onto my husband to make sure he didn’t fall off the bench. The journey was over an hour long.. when we arrived several men struggled to lift my husband up onto the port side.. the ship doctor was not allowed off the boat and was sent back to ship.. we were then bungled in some kind of Ambulance with no equipment and taken to a hospital.. we went in to what I think was A & E where there was dirty and rusty equipment.. need I say more.. this is the worst experience of my life

  8. Carole Murillo

    I had a massive heart attack on March 10, 2016 aboard a Celebrity cruise. My first and only cruise. Had ship insurance. Given a life-saving injection which cost $7,000 and was helicoptered to Puerto Rico! Writing a book about the experience and how it changed my life! Title ”Beyond The Cruise” available in June on Amazon!

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