Travel sickness or Motion sickness may occur in response to certain types of movement, whether it is the person or what they are looking at (for example, a movie screen) that is moving. Motion sickness is not considered to be a disease as it can occur in nearly every person.
Some people are particularly sensitive to certain motion and very little may be required before they feel ill. Children between the ages of two and 12 years are particularly prone to motion sickness.
In part, motion sickness is thought to take place when there is a mismatch between the information that the brain receives from the inner ear balance mechanism (vestibular system) and what the eyes ‘see’. For example, if the eyes tell the brain that a person is stationary (such as looking at the interior of a cabin on a ship), but the vestibular system senses head movements (due to motion of the ship), then this is thought to cause a mismatch of messages to the brain and leads to motion sickness.
Frequent vomiting can lead to dehydration and low blood pressure, so it is important to seek prompt medical attention if this occurs. Motion sickness is also known as travel sickness, airsickness, carsickness or seasickness.
Risk factors for motion sickness
While most people may experience motion sickness, some factors may make motion sickness more likely to occur, including:
- Women are generally more susceptible than men.
- Children are more susceptible than adults (generally between the ages of two and 12 years).
- Hormonal factors include pregnancy, menstrual cycle factors and oral contraceptives.
- Other balance disorders may be a factor, particularly vestibular disease and migraine.
- A person who has experienced motion sickness in the past may have worse symptoms on future trips by expecting to feel sick.
Symptoms of motion sickness
Symptoms can range from mild to serious, and can include:
- generally feeling unwell and tired
- excessive production of saliva
- nausea, vomiting
Long-term or repeated exposure to motion
If a person is exposed to motion for an extended period (for example, during a long journey at sea) or has repeated exposures, their brain may adapt in time to the constant motion and they may no longer experience motion sickness.
Reducing the risk of motion sickness
There are different things you can try in order to prevent motion sickness or at least reduce its effects, including:
- During motion, look at an earth-fixed object. For example, if you are on a boat, try and look at the horizon or landmasses from the deck, rather than the inside of the cabin. Also, car passengers should sit in the front seat and look through the window, rather than sitting in the rear and looking at objects moving with the interior of the car (such as reading a book).
- Motion sickness does not usually occur when movement is under a person’s control. The driver of a car is less likely to get motion sickness than a passenger. Position yourself where you will experience the least motion, such as over the wings in an aeroplane or in the centre of a ship.
- The larger the vehicle, the less susceptible it is to move so, if possible, try to travel on a ship rather than a small boat.
- Some people find that closing their eyes is the best way to eliminate sensory confusion.
- Avoid alcohol for 24 hours before travelling and during the trip.
- Make sure you have plenty of fresh air. Fumes or smoke can exacerbate symptoms.
- On brief journeys, try not to eat or drink anything.
- On long journeys, eat and drink sparingly and often.
- Anxiety worsens symptoms. Use relaxation techniques and if your anxiety is marked, you could consider professional counselling.
Treatment for motion sickness
Medications either calm the nerves of the inner ear or soothe the brain’s vomiting centre. However, nearly all motion sickness pills are most effective if they are taken before you feel sick. Some motion sickness pills may cause drowsiness as a side effect. You may need to experiment with different medication to find which one works best for you. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for more information.
Research suggests that ginger can help to ease the symptoms of motion sickness. You could chew on raw ginger or make a quick tea by adding minced ginger to boiling water.
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Psychologist or counsellor
When to see your doctor
Most people are able to work out for themselves if they suffer from motion sickness. However, it’s a good idea to see your doctor if you have frequent or severe symptoms when travelling. Your doctor can rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms or making them worse and suggest tips and treatments that can help your travel sickness.
While there are no special tests to help diagnose motion sickness, your doctor may ask whether you feel sick if you read while travelling by car, because this is a good indicator of how susceptible you are to travel sickness.
Self-care for motion sickness
It’s a good idea to try some simple, self-care measures before turning to medicines for mild motion sickness.
Before you travel
Eat a light snack because travelling on an empty stomach tends to make travel sickness worse. Plain crackers are often a good choice while you are travelling. Avoid large, greasy or spicy meals and alcohol before and while travelling.
Choose carefully where you sit – try the following tips.
- If possible, be the driver or sit in the front seat when travelling by car. It’s best if the car travels smoothly – jerky stop-start movements are not helpful.
- Sit as close to the front as possible when travelling by bus, train or tram, and choose a window seat facing forwards.
- When flying, sit over the front edge of the aeroplane wing – the ride tends to be less bumpy.
- Choose a cabin at the front or middle of a ship, near the waterline, where there tends to be less movement.
While you are travelling
Practice controlled breathing. Breathing at a regular rate, and a steady, moderate depth (not too deeply) can help prevent and relieve symptoms.
Try not to move your head around too much – it may help to use pillows or a headrest. When travelling by plane, keep your head and body as still as possible during turbulence by strapping your seatbelt on tightly and gripping the seat with your arms and legs. Sit still during take-off and landing.
Watch where you look. Try looking out the window and focussing on the horizon, the road ahead or a distant stationary object. If you can’t see outside, close your eyes. In fact, closed eyes is the best tactic for some people regardless – trial and error will tell you what works best for you. If travelling by plane, close your eyes or avoid looking out the window during take-off and landing. If travelling on a high-speed, tilting train it may be best to focus your attention inside.
Try to avoid strong or unpleasant smells (such as diesel fumes from the engine of a boat), if possible.
Keep cool – open the window or use air conditioning.
Try reclining in your seat or lying down if it is possible and safe to do so.
It may help to try to distract children by talking, singing or listening to music or an audiobook.
Avoid reading or using a device (including a phone or tablet) while travelling.
When travelling by sea, try spending time on deck. On a large boat, it can help some people to spend time out on the deck in the fresh air, looking at the horizon. But for others, lying down in your cabin with your eyes closed gives better relief.
Avoid going on rides at amusement parks that are likely to cause symptoms – experience will tell you which types of movement are likely to cause problems.
There are medicines available in Australia to help with motion sickness, including tablets, chewable tablets and liquid medicine (elixir). Skin patches for travel sickness are not currently available in Australia but can be purchased overseas.
Available medicines for motion sickness include the following.
- Antihistamines, including promethazine (examples of brand names include Avomine, Allersoothe and Phenergan) and pheniramine (brand name Avil). Another type of antihistamine called cyclizine (brand name Nausicalm) may be used in adults only. These sedating antihistamines seem to be more effective than the newer, non-sedating antihistamines.
- Hyoscine hydrobromide (e.g. Kwells, Travacalm HO).
- A combination medicine containing dimenhydrinate (an antihistamine), hyoscine hydrobromide and caffeine (brand name Travacalm Original).
In general, medicines should be used only occasionally when travelling. They should be taken several hours before travelling because they are more effective at preventing symptoms than treating symptoms after they have developed.
Most travel sickness medicines are available from pharmacies without a prescription, but you should always check with your doctor or pharmacist whether medicines are suitable for you or your child before taking them. Not all medicines are suitable for children of all ages. Also, be sure to check the dose according to the age of the child.
Medicines used to treat motion sickness may cause drowsiness. You should not drive or operate machinery if you’ve taken these medicines. Children (and some adults) sometimes become agitated after taking some antihistamine medicines, so it’s best to trial the medicine for the first time while you are still at home.
Many medicines used for travel sickness should not be taken with alcohol.
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