The Complete Guide to Health and Safety in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands for Travellers
Crime is minimal, there are no crocodiles, no malaria and not much else to be too concerned about. All in all, the Cook Islands is a very safe place to visit. However, mosquitos can be a pain and spread diseases, standing on stonefish hurts like hell, and you’ll want to be able to handle a scooter before hitting the roads. In this guide on how to stay safe in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands, we outline the health and safety issues to be aware of in the Cook Islands and how you can reduce the risks.
10 Health Tips for the Cook Islands
Before we go into our in-depth health and safety tips for the Cook Islands, here are a few quick tips to keep in mind while travelling:
- If you are feeling ill, be proactive and see a doctor in the Cook Islands. They are more likely to know the local illnesses than your doctor back home
- Go heavy on the sun protection
- Be serious about avoiding mosquito bites
- Make sure your travel vaccinations are up-to-date. See a doctor 4-6 weeks before travel at the latest
- Know what water is safe to drink
- Focus on hand hygiene when staying in remote areas
- Pack a first aid kit specifically for the Cook Islands
- If you get cut, act quickly to clean the wound, disinfect and place an adequate band-aid
- If you have pre-existing conditions, such as asthma or diabetes, see your doctor a few weeks before your trip and ask them to make a note of your medication and condition
- Know the emergency number in the Cook Islands: 999.
Now, let’s get onto our health and safety advice for Rarotonga and the Cook Islands.
Health Tips for the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands presents a few environmental hazards but very few diseases. Like travelling anywhere in the world, it’s smart to have your travel vaccinations up-to-date and to prepare a first aid kit for injuries or minor health issues that might occur. See our advice in What Medication to Pack in Your First Aid Kit for the Cook Islands and Do You Need Vaccines to Travel to the Cook Islands?
Medical Issues That Can Occur in the Cook Islands
The most common medical issues that can occur in the Cook Islands are sunburn, heatstroke, mosquito bites and coral cuts. These are very easy to keep in check with simple precautions. Other medical issues may occur when it comes to drinking water and food, which we cover in our “Food and Water Hygiene” section.
Overexposure to the sun and high humidity can lead to heatstroke. Symptoms include exhaustion, confusion, headache and vomiting. To avoid, wear high-factor sunscreen, reapply every three hours or straight after swimming, and drink plenty of water. If symptoms occur, move out of the sun immediately and try to cool the victim down by wrapping a wet towel around them. See a doctor as soon as possible. For more sun protection tips, check out The Best Sunscreens for the Cook Islands + Sun Protection Tips.
Mosquitos can leave a nasty itchy bite, which is enough to ruin an evening under the stars. What’s more, day-biting mosquitos transmit dengue fever (see below). Check out 12 Ways to Avoid Mosquito Bites in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for ways to avoid bites.
Ciguatera is fish poisoning caused by eating reef fish that have eaten particular types of toxic algae. Symptoms occur within 24 hours of eating contaminated reef fish and include vomiting, diarrhoea and numbness in the fingers. The best way to prevent it is to avoid eating reef fish altogether; eating deep-sea fish, like tuna, wahoo and mahimahi, is fine.
Cuts from live coral can leave prolonged infections, so if you are injured by live coral, get out of the water immediately and cleanse the wound. Take out all of the bits of coral, apply antiseptic cream, and cover with a dressing. You should have all this stuff in your Cook Islands First Aid Kit!
Scuba diving is a popular activity in Rarotonga and Aitutaki, but neglecting the strict depth and timing precautions of scuba diving can result in decompression illness, otherwise known as “the bends”. Note that there are no decompression chambers in the Cook Islands.
Dengue fever is a mosquito-transmitted disease that has regular outbreaks in the Cook Islands. It is only the day-biting mosquitos (black and white striped) that cause the infection, so take a precaution by preventing mosquito bites. See the 12 Ways to Avoid Mosquito Bites in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands for tips.
E-coli (Traveller’s Diarrhoea)
E-coli is a virus resulting from food and water that is contaminated with faecal matter, for instance. Precautions to take include boiling water for at least 10 minutes if the water is not from a safe source and washing hands regularly. See Is the Water Safe to Drink in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? for more tips. Symptoms include fever, drowsiness and diarrhoea. If symptoms occur, hydrate by taking small sips of fluids continuously, alternating between electrolytes and water. If you don’t have an electrolyte solution, drink Coca-Cola or salty broth. In most cases, you will need to wait out the symptoms, as antibiotics rarely treat E-coli effectively.
The COVID-19 virus has been present in the Cook Islands. Symptoms are flu-like including fever, cough, tiredness and loss of taste or smell. It is recommended that you are fully vaccinated before travelling to the Cook Islands. See Do You Need Vaccines to Travel to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? for more details.
Natural Disasters in the Cook Islands
Although the Cook Islands is usually blessed with buckets of sunshine, its location in the South Pacific means that it is at risk of extreme weather events and natural disasters.
The South Pacific cyclone season runs from November to April. On average, the Cook Islands experiences a big cyclone once every five or so years (but in 2005, they got five cyclones in five weeks)! The Cook Islands is well prepared for cyclones, however, so check out Cyclones in the Cook Islands: A Guide to Cyclone Safety in the Cook Islands for advice on safety precautions.
Being a little out of the way from major earthquake zones, the Cook Islands has rarely been impacted by tsunamis. Regardless, the country has tsunami protocols in place, as it is at risk. Find out more in The Guide to Earthquakes & Tsunamis in the Cook Islands.
Dangerous Animals in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands doesn’t have any poisonous spiders or snakes (one of the 21 Fun Facts About Rarotonga & the Cook Islands) but there are venomous fish, as well as other animals that you’re best to avoid. These include:
- Aedes aegypti – The day-biting mosquito that can transmit dengue fever
- Stonefish – Camouflage fish that have venomous spines
- Centipede – Will leave a painful bite if provoked
- Crown-of-thorns starfish – Has venomous spikes
- Fire coral – Has bright yellow branches and leaves a nasty sting or rash
- Lionfish – Fish that leaves a painful sting
- Man o war jellyfish – Rarely seen but they can get carried over reefs after storms
- Red ants – Not as serious as any of the above, but they can give rapid annoying stings that will soon recover.
For more information about the sort of animals you’ll see in the Cooks, check out Wildlife in the Cook Islands: Animals in the Cook Islands & Where to See Them.
Food and Water Hygiene
Where most travellers visit in the Cook Islands, there is safe drinking water available and food prepared and/or packaged to a safe standard. On remoter islands, there is more likely that there will be water or food that doesn’t “agree” with you, even if the locals drink/eat it every day. We go over a few food and water hygiene tips for the Cook Islands here.
Know What Water is Safe to Drink
Tap water in most tourist accommodations is safe to drink, as many have their own filtration system installed but always be sure to ask where to get safe drinking water (as it’s not always from your bathroom’s tap!) as well as in resorts that often have their own water filtration system. There are also filtered public water stations around Rarotonga and Aitutaki. Otherwise, in villages and remote areas the water may not be safe to drink, even if the locals are drinking it – they are usually used to it.
To avoid water-borne diseases, such as traveller’s diarrhoea, boil water for about 10 minutes before drinking it. Water purifying tablets and Lifestraw bottles also help, but boiling water is the safest option. See Is the Water Safe to Drink in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands? for much more of a deep dive into the subject.
Focus on Hygiene Especially When Staying in Remote Areas
Staying on a remote island can be an enriching cultural experience, but you will need to accept a small portion of risk with conditions being so remote and different from home. First, focus on hygiene by washing your hands regularly or using a hand sanitiser, especially before eating food. In the unlikely case that you do start feeling ill, act quickly by seeking medical attention, even if it means returning to Rarotonga. If you let the situation worsen, it may be very strenuous to wait to see a doctor.
Be Aware of Food Safety
Eating in restaurants or at tourist accommodation is usually very safe in the Cook Islands. But if you’re eating in a remote area, then there are a few things to be aware of. For instance, if you’re in an area that may have unsafe water, avoid eating salads or uncooked food that might have been washed with contaminated water. Preferably, eat food that has been cooked in front of you. Vegetarian food is usually the safest option.
To avoid gastro bugs, use hand disinfectant and only eat cooked food. If you get diarrhoea, drink water regularly and alternate between electrolytes and water. If other symptoms occur, see a doctor.
A common type of food poisoning in the Cook Islands is ciguatera caused by eating reef fish that has eaten toxic algae. Avoid eating reef fish and just stick to the deep-sea stuff.
Finally, avoid salmonella by not eating runny eggs or undercooked meat. If you have blood in your stool, see a doctor immediately.
Travellers with gluten intolerance can get advice from The Gluten-Free Guide to Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.
Hospitals, Medical Centres and Pharmacies in the Cook Islands
If you do have health issues or serious injuries while in the Cook Islands, then there are hospitals (which also act as medical centres/GPs) on all inhabited islands, while Rarotonga is the only island with pharmacies. Basic over-the-counter medical supplies can be bought at supermarkets and grocery stores.
Note the phone number in an emergency is 999.
Pharmacies in the Cook Islands
- Cook Islands Pharmacy (Avarua, Rarotonga +682 27577)
- Cook Islands Pharmacy (Muri, Rarotonga +682 27577)
- CITC Pharmacy (Avarua, Rarotonga, +682 29292 or +682 54144)
- Hospital Pharmacy (Tupapa, Rarotonga, +682 20097).
Hospitals in the Cook Islands
- Rarotonga Hospital (Nikao, +682 22664)
- Tupapa Clinic (Avarua, Rarotonga, +682 22664)
- Aitutaki Hospital (Arutanga, +682 31002 or 31041 or 31640 or emergency +682 31998)
- Atiu Hospital (Ngatiarua, +682 33664 or 76129)
- Mangaia Hospital (Oneroa, +682 34028 or 34027)
- Mauke Hospital (Kimiangatau, +682 35149 or emergency +682 35664)
- Mitiaro Hospital (Mangarei, +682 36120 or +682 36123)
- Tuhunu Hospital (Tokerau, Manihiki, +682 43664)
- Tukao Hospital (Ngake, Manihiki, +682 43364)
- Rakahanga Hospital (Numahanga, Rakahanga, +682 44664 or +682 44998)
- Omoka Hospital (Omoka, Penrhyn, +682 42083 or +682 42664)
- Tetautua Hospital (Tetautua, Penrhyn, +682 42317)
- Nassau Hospital (Nassau, +682 45614)
- Pukapuka Hospital (Wale, Pukapuka, +682 41446).
For more essential services around the Cooks, take a look at the Information, Shops & Services in the Cook Islands.
Crimes Against Tourists in the Cook Islands
The Cook Islands is generally very safe when it comes to crime, while tourist scams are unheard of. However, there is the occasional petty crime, like theft and accommodation break-ins in cases where valuables are on display or accommodation is not secured.
Beach locations are higher-risk areas for theft of unattended items, so make sure that you don’t leave bags or valuables in vehicles, scooters or on bicycles and lock your vehicles. If you have accommodation on the beach (or anywhere, for that matter), make sure that you lock your door.
Theft is not something to be too worried about in the Cook Islands, but a bit of commonsense precaution is always advised.
Cook Islands Police
Emergency number: 999
There are police stations on the following islands:
- Rarotonga – Avarua Police Station (+682 22499)
- Aitutaki – Arutanga Police Station (+682 31015)
- Atiu – Ngatiarua Police Station (+682 33120)
- Mangaia – Oneroa Police Station (+682 34287)
- Mauke – Kimiangatau (+682 35086)
- Penrhyn – Omoka Police Station (+682 42499)
Note that the other inhabited islands of the Cook Islands don’t have a police station/office in the traditional sense but their subsequent “Island Administration” deals with Police matters.
Road Safety in the Cook Islands
The final danger or potential hazard in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands is the roads. Although speed limits are low and there are efficient road rules in place, the roads can sometimes feel a little congested on the small but most populated island of Rarotonga, and regular accidents on the road do happen. Some safety tips for driving on the roads in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands include:
- Take it easy and stick to the speed limit
- Watch out for children and animals on the road
- Be mindful of the buses
- Wear a helmet when riding a scooter
- Take extra care when driving on unsealed roads
- Don’t park under coconut trees
- Wear your seatbelt (even if the locals don’t).
We have elaboration on these safety tips in the 10 Safety Tips for Driving in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands, as well as road rules to follow in How to Drive in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands + 10 Road Rules.
More About Health and Safety in the Cook Islands
That’s it for our complete guide to health and safety in Rarotonga and the Cook Islands. For more Cook Islands safety tips, check out the following guides:
- 10 Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens for the Cook Islands
- 29 Tips for Your Family Rarotonga & Cook Islands Vacation with Kids
- 30 Ways to Travel More Sustainably in the Cook Islands
Finally, get all the travel tips you need for the Cook Islands from The Best Cook Islands Travel Guide: Plan a Trip the EASY Way and the 30 Tips for Travelling in Rarotonga & the Cook Islands.