Motion Sickness: Causes and Treatments

Motion sickness is a loss of equilibrium that occurs when people travel in a car, bus, boat, train, airplane, or amusement park ride. The problem is common among children between the ages of 2 and 12. Some children are especially susceptible, so that they usually become motion sick each time they travel in a vehicle. Women (pregnant women in particular) and migraine sufferers, may be more susceptible to motion sickness than other adults.

Signs and symptoms of motion sickness

Signs and symptoms of motion sickness

 Nausea and vomiting
 Spinning sensation
 Loss of appetite

What causes motion sickness?

It is caused by mixed signals to the brain—a discrepancy between what the eyes see and what the inner ear senses. The problem resides in the inner ear, which has fluid moving in its semicircular canals to monitor the directions of motion. Certain movements, such as the rolling of a ship or air turbulence in a plane during a flight, stimulate these fluids, while at the same time the eyes are focused on rapidly moving scenery instead of a stable horizon. The brain receives messages from nerves affected by this imbalance, and in turn the brain sends a message to the stomach, resulting in nausea and possibly vomiting.

What if you do nothing?

While motion sickness isn’t usually a health problem, it is often uncomfortable and can interfere with a trip. If you (or a child) are susceptible, the likelihood of motion sickness during travel is high. So it’s best to focus on preventing symptoms before you set out.

Home remedies for motion sickness

Once you begin to feel ill, there are a few things you can do that may provide some relief.

  • Take care of the nausea. Lie on your back with a cool cloth over your forehead and eyes or sit and gaze at the distant horizon. Have a receptacle handy in case you vomit.
  • Distract yourself. Sniff soothing scents (some research suggests lavender or mint are helpful) or listen to music.
  • You might consider wearing a small watch-like device, ReliefBand, for both treatment and prevention. When strapped onto the inside of your wrist and turned on, a mild electric shock stimulates an acupressure point, which is meant to provide an anti-nausea effect. The battery-powered device is expensive ($90), and the data to support its use is weak—but some people swearby it.
  • Try mindful breathing. This involves focusing all your awareness on your breathing.
  • Hold your head very still.
  • Avoid any food that might not agree with you.
  • Replace fluids. If you have vomited, you want to avoid becoming dehydrated. Take sips of clear fluids until your stomach settles down.
  • Herbal remedies may help for both treatment and prevention, although the science behind the claims is weak. Ginger is the herb most touted to ease motion sickness. Some studies suggest it may affect the stomach contractions or affect neurotransmitters in the brain. You can buy ginger pills, chewable tablets, capsules, powder that’s mixed in water at the store, or eat candied ginger or drink ginger tea.

Peppermint is also popular—and pleasant. But keep in mind that large doses of raw ginger or peppermint oil can irritate the stomach lining as well as the mouth.

How to prevent motion sickness

It’s easier to prevent motion sickness than to treat it once it begins.

  • Consider medication. If you always suffer from motion sickness, the best plan is to try preventive medication. Some over-the-counter antihistamines have been approved by the FDA for motion sickness. The active ingredients are antihistamines: cyclizine (Marezine and generic brands), dimenhydrinate (Dramamine and generics), diphenhydramine (Benadryl and generics), and meclizine (Bonine and generics). In studies, these drugs have been similarly effective in preventing overall symptoms of motion sickness.
  • Start taking your chosen drug 30 to 60 minutes before you leave. (They won’t work well once you are sick.) Remember that each of these drugs may cause drowsiness.
  • Be vigilant concerning food and drink. Eat something before your trip, but don’t eat a lot. Fruit juice and toast, for example, may be all that you need. Avoid eating a heavy meal or drinking alcohol before traveling.
  • Sharpen your focus. In a boat or in a car, be sure to focus on the horizon or some other fixed point in the distance. In a plane, sit by a window and look outside. This way your eyes will see the same motion that your body and inner ears feel.
  • Choose your spot wisely. In a car, van, or train, be sure to have a seat that gives you a clear view of the road ahead; do not sit in a seat facing backward. In a plane, choose a window seat over the wings, where you will experience the least motion. At sea, stay on a lower deck and mid-ship where there’s less motion.
  • Avoid strong odors from food, tobacco, or perfume. Such smells can induce or increase nausea.
  • Choose amusement park rides carefully. Avoid rides that spin or involve side-to-side, up-and-down, or wave-like motions.
  • Don’t read. Trying to focus on the page or on the screen of a laptop computer while your inner ear is jiggling may be enough to trigger motion sickness.

When to call your doctor

Motion sickness is usually an inconvenience rather than a health problem unless it’s causing you to lose significant fluids because of repeated/severe vomiting. If you travel regularly and are often disturbed or incapacitated by it, contact your physician. If you find yourself on a cruise where you’re incapacitated by vomiting, contact the cruise physician.

What your doctor will do

Your doctor may prescribe one of a variety of antinausea medications.

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