Motion Sickness: If It Hits You on Long Trips, Consider These Prevention Steps

Planes, boats, and automobiles! If you suffer from motion sickness, a long car ride or family cruise may fill you with dread. What causes motion sickness? And what can we do to reduce our risk?

motion sickness

If traveling makes you feel like this, make sure you head off your motion sickness at the pass: Prepare for your trips with the steps outlined here. Sitting position, avoidance of triggers, and where you look all come into play.

© Innovatedcaptures | Dreamstime

Motion sickness is common and affects people traveling in a moving vehicle—a car, train, airplane, boat, or fairground ride. It can even affect people in virtual reality simulators. It is also known as travel sickness, airsickness, carsickness, and seasickness. Symptoms—including dizziness, nausea, and vomiting—can affect people at any age, but is more common in children and pregnant women.

What Causes Motion Sickness?

Motion sickness occurs when there is a mismatch between the sensory signals received by your brain from your inner ears (semicircular canals), eyes, muscles, and joints. For example, if you’re reading a book in the car, your eyes send signals to your brain that you are not moving, but your inner ear and joints send signals saying that you are in motion. The more extreme the movement, the more extreme the motion sickness.

Who Gets Motion Sickness?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s CDC Yellow Book for travelers, pregnant women and children (2 to 12 years old) are most affected by motion sickness, but it can affect people at any age.

The risk is increased by alcohol, anxiety, the method of travel, poor ventilation, or a powerful smell (like food, petroleum products, or vomit), and being unable to see outside. Migraine sufferers are also at increased risk.

Symptoms of Motion Sickness

If you suffer from motion sickness, you may develop a variety of symptoms while traveling. Among them:

  • A generally “unwell” feeling
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating or feeling clammy
  • Dizziness
  • Excessive salivation
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sensitivity to odors
  • Loss of appetite

Symptoms usually subside once movement has stopped, but sometimes after a long boat trip, it may continue for hours.

Only in extreme cases does the individual need to see a doctor—if vomiting has been significant enough to cause dehydration, for example. If symptoms persist long after movement has settled, or if the symptoms develop when you are not traveling, tell your doctor.

How Can You Prevent Motion Sickness?

It’s best to prevent motion sickness, as it can be difficult to treat once it has set in. If you have suffered with motion sickness in the past, here are some tips on how to reduce your risk before you travel:

  • Make the right seating choice. Choose your seat carefully in a car, bus, or plane. Sit in the front seat of the car, or near the front on a bus. On a plane, try and book a seat near the window and over the wing. Keep your head as still as you can, using a neck pillow or support, and look out the window as much as possible. If you are travelling by car with friends and family, volunteer to drive; holding the steering wheel reduces motion sickness.
  • motion sickness

    Seasickness can be very common. When traveling on a cruise, avoid motion sickness by choosing a cabin near the middle of the ship and even with the waterline; on a smaller boat, stay at water level and frequently view the horizon. [Photo: © Kirill Linnik | Dreamstime]

  • Be smart about sea travel. If you’re embarking on a cruise on a large ship, book a cabin near the middle on the waterline, and get fresh air as often as you can. On a smaller boat, stay at water level and observe the horizon often. Spend as much time on the boat or ship as you can before you sail, in calm waters.
  • Be aware of your sitting position. According to experts at Medscape, the best sitting position is facing in the direction of travel, slightly reclined at a 30-degree angle, with the neck kept straight (not turned to side). They also recommend wearing sunglasses or closing your eyes to reduce symptoms. If you are on a boat or plane and can stand, face forward with knees slightly bent. Lying completely flat with eyes closed may also help but, of course, is not always practical.
  • Avoid triggers. Avoid alcohol, food, or strong odors before or during travel. If it’s a long trip and you need to eat, opt for small portions of bland foods. Drink water or non-fizzy drinks, taking frequent small sips. Some people find that petroleum products, coffee, and nicotine make symptoms worse; if you’re among them, avoid coming into contact with these substances.
  • Make the right seating choice. Choose your seat carefully in a car, bus, or plane. Sit in the front seat of the car, or near the front on a bus. On a plane, try and book a seat near the window and over the wing. Keep your head as still as you can, using a neck pillow or support, and look out the window as much as possible. If you are travelling by car with friends and family, volunteer to drive; holding the steering wheel reduces motion sickness.
  • Don’t look down. Do not read a book, watch videos, play games, or check your e-mail or social media on your phone: If you must engage in these types of activities, look up at the horizon frequently. Better option: Plan ahead with your favorite music playlist, meditation recording, or audio book to keep you entertained. Better still: Spark up a conversation with your neighbor or travel companion.
  • Prepare for your trip. Keep a plastic bag, tissues, and bottle of water at hand in case you need to vomit. Chew gum after vomiting to freshen teeth and reduce acidity of the mouth.
  • Try relaxation techniques. Controlled breathing, listening to music, and engaging in guided meditation or aromatherapy (like mint or lavender, if you can tolerate the smells) may provide a distraction and reduce anxiety that exacerbates symptoms.
  • Try ginger or acupuncture. Some people swear by ginger products (tea, ale, or lozenges) and acupressure (wristbands or self-administered). The scientific evidence is inconclusive, but they are worth a try.

What Is the Medical Treatment for Motion Sickness?

If you have a history of motion sickness, it’s worth planning a preemptive strike. Medication is most effective if taken before the trip begins.

  • First generation antihistamines, such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and promethazine (Phenergan), are available over-the-counter and can help prevent and treat motion sickness. They also cause drowsiness.
  • Scopolamine is an anticholinergic drug used in the prevention and treatment of motion sickness. It is prescribed as a patch, to be placed half an hour before travel on the bone behind the ear. Potential side effects include dry mouth, nose, and throat as well asdrowsiness, blurred vision, and light sensitivity.
  • Antiemetics, such as ondansetron, are drugs that relieve nausea, and may help during an attack of motion sickness.
  • Benzodiazepines, such as diazepam, may be prescribed as a last resort for people with severe motion sickness. They effectively sedate the individual for the duration of the journey.

Because all of these medications have side effects, it is best to try on at least one occasion before travel. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about drug interactions.

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