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Expert Q&A

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Does traveling increase your chance of illness?

Asked by Tom, Greensboro, Georgia

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Recently, more than 70 people from the same retirement neighborhood went on a five-day cruise. By the end of the cruise and right afterward, at least half of the people had colds and respiratory problems, with one person needing to be hospitalized with pneumonia. Could this illness be from the air conditioning or close quarters? What is the best way to notify the authorities to prevent others from contracting this illness?

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Living Well Expert Dr. Jennifer Shu Pediatrician,
Children's Medical Group

Expert answer

Thanks for your question, and I hope you had a wonderful cruise before all the respiratory symptoms came up. It is very common for colds and other illnesses to get passed around in any crowded situation, especially when access to sinks and hand hygiene may not be ideal.

Respiratory viruses can be transmitted through direct contact with germs on another person's hands or from droplets spread by coughs and sneezes within about six feet away. Complications such as pneumonia can follow infections with respiratory viruses, particularly in people with weakened immune systems.

There have been reports of illness from Legionella bacteria found in whirlpool spas and the drinking water supply on cruise ships, influenza virus passing between passengers, and norovirus intestinal infections spreading through poor food-handling techniques.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks these types of infections, which may be more serious and can possibly be prevented. The agency may be contacted at 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636)/TTY: (888) 232-6348 or cdcinfo@cdc.gov. The CDC Vessel Sanitation Program also maintains a database of cruise ship inspection scores.

While it may be too late now to do anything about your particular cruise, travelers or their doctors (or the cruise ship's doctor, if he or she noticed an outbreak pattern during the trip) may also report infection outbreaks to a local or state health department for further investigation if indicated.

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