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There are ways to minimize exposure to the coronavirus even when traveling. Getty Images
  • To help limit transmission of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is advising Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to China.
  • Since the COVID-19 virus was first detected in China in December 2019, more than 75,000 cases of the infection have been confirmed there.
  • Individual travelers can help limit COVID-19 and other virus transmission by practicing good hand hygiene, minimizing contact with people who are sick, and taking other steps to help manage the risk of infection.

Earlier this month, thousands of people on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship were quarantined in Japan after 10 passengers were diagnosed with the new strain of coronavirus (COVID-19).

In the weeks that followed, more than 600 of the 3,700 passengers and crew members on the ship tested positive for the virus.

Some of the passengers have been airlifted to quarantined facilities in their home countries, while others are still waiting to be repatriated.

This has left many people with questions and concerns about the safety of traveling by cruise ship or other means.

Prospective travelers may worry about the risk of contracting the virus — as well as the chance that they might get quarantined in a foreign port if their fellow travelers get sick.

“Understand that the cruise operators, ports of call, and the American public health authorities are all on high alert with safety and precautionary programs in place,” Dr. Louis Morledge, an internist who specializes in travel medicine at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline.

“Major cruise lines have been aggressive since the outbreak began by stepping up their preboarding health screenings and turning away any passengers or crew members who have recently been in China,” he said.

Individual travelers can also help limit the transmission of COVID-19 and other viruses by practicing good hand hygiene, minimizing contact with people who are sick, and taking other steps to help manage the risk of infection.

Since the COVID-19 virus was first detected in China in December 2019, more than 77,000 cases have been confirmed there.

More than a thousand cases have also been confirmed outside of China, with most of those cases occurring in countries in East and Southeast Asia.

To help limit transmission, the CDC is advising Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to China. The U.S. Department of State has also issued a warning against traveling there.

The absolute risk of contracting the virus outside of China remains “pretty darn low,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, told Healthline.

But when people are deciding whether or not to travel to other countries in the region, he encourages them to take their personal risk tolerance into account.

Those who have a low tolerance for risk may be more comfortable postponing their trips or choosing another destination.

“Cruising to South America? Cruising the Caribbean? Cruising the Mediterranean? No problem, at least not from the point of view [of] coronavirus,” Schaffner said.

“But Southeast Asia cruising? Maybe next year,” he said.

Limiting close contact with people who are sick can help lower your risk for contracting a respiratory infection, such as COVID-19 or the flu.

But that can be difficult to do when you’re traveling on a plane, cruise ship, or other mass transit.

According to an air quality expert from Purdue University, the air conditioning systems on cruise ships aren’t designed to filter out viruses.

“It’s standard practice for the air conditioning systems of cruise ships to mix outside air with inside air to save energy. The problem is that these systems can’t filter out particles smaller than 5,000 nanometers,” Qingyan Chen, PhD, a professor of mechanical engineering at Purdue University, said in a recent news release.

“If the coronavirus is about the same size as SARS, which is 120 nanometers in diameter, then the air conditioning system would be carrying the virus to every cabin,” he continued.

Planes have more effective air filtration systems, but people who are sitting close to a passenger who’s coughing or sneezing may still be exposed to airborne germs.

If you’re worried about contracting a respiratory infection from another passenger, wearing a face mask may help lower the risk.

“Face masks can be considered for sick travelers to help reduce the spread of respiratory germs and for people sitting near sick travelers with respiratory symptoms, when the sick traveler cannot tolerate wearing a mask,” Morledge explained.

Practicing good hand hygiene can also help lower your risk for contracting a respiratory infection or other contagious illnesses while traveling.

“Handwashing is the single most important infection control measure,” Morledge told Healthline.

“Avoid touching your mouth, eyes, and nose with unwashed or gloved hands,” he advised.

In particular, he encourages travelers to wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after assisting or touching anyone who’s sick.

It’s also important to wash your hands after touching bodily fluids or surfaces that might be contaminated with germs.

If soap and water aren’t available, the CDC recommends using a hand sanitizer with an alcohol content of 60 to 95 percent.

Whether you’re traveling abroad or staying home, Schaffner emphasizes the importance of getting the flu shot to reduce your risk for respiratory illness.

The flu shot won’t protect against COVID-19, but it will lower your chances of contracting the much more common influenza virus.

“The dominant virus that’s causing respiratory illness now, all over the United States, is influenza,” Schaffner said.

“It’s kind of late, but if you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated,” he said.

If you’re taking an international trip, your doctor might also encourage you to get other vaccinations. Let them know where you’re traveling, and ask if there are any immunizations that you should get.

If you develop symptoms of a respiratory illness or other disease while traveling, it’s important to keep your distance from other travelers if possible. If you’re traveling by cruise ship, let the crew know.

“Cruise ships have well-trained medical personnel on board and are well equipped to handle any illness,” Morledge said.

“Self-isolate and inform the onboard medical center immediately if [you] develop a fever, begin to feel feverish, or develop other signs or symptoms of sickness, especially if [you’ve recently traveled] from China,” he advised.

What to Do If You Have Symptoms of COVID-19

If you have COVID-19 or suspect you have the virus that causes COVID-19, you should seek medical care.

You have several options for obtaining medical care, including being seen by your primary healthcare provider. The CDC recommends calling your provider first so that they can take the necessary steps to prepare for your visit and protect others from possible exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19.

Some healthcare providers also offer virtual visits through your smartphone or laptop, so you may not need to leave your home for an initial assessment.

If you don’t have a primary healthcare provider, you can use this tool to find a local primary care office in your area.

If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Notify the operator that you have COVID-19 or suspect exposure to the virus that causes it. If possible, put on a face mask before emergency medical services arrive.

Disclosure: Healthline maintains a partnership with some of the providers linked above and may receive compensation for services provided.