Motion sickness

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

There are many ways to prevent and treat motion sickness, sometimes without using medicines. (Image: Pavel L Photo and Video / Shutterstock.com)

Whether you get it in the air, on a boat, in a car, or on a rollercoaster ride — motion sickness is no fun.

Anyone can get motion sickness (sometimes called ‘travel’, ‘car’ or ‘sea’ sickness), but it affects some people more than others, especially women, and children aged between 3 and 12 years.

There are many ways you can prevent and treat motion sickness, sometimes without needing medicines.

Motion sickness is common

About 30% of the general population get motion sickness when travelling by air, car, sea or train, with 5% experiencing severe symptoms. Some people also get motion sickness on amusement park rides or when playing games that incorporate immersion in virtual reality.

Why does it happen?

The cause of motion sickness is complex. It is thought to be due to the brain sensing motion from three different pathways of the nervous system — including your eyes, body surface and inner ear.

The motion-sensing organs of the inner ear — which affect your balance and stability — seem to be the most critical element because we know that without them, motion sickness does not occur.

What are the symptoms?

Motion sickness often causes nausea, vomiting and dizziness (vertigo). Sweating and a general feeling of discomfort and being unwell are also common.

Symptoms usually subside when motion ceases and they tend to be mild, although it may not feel so at the time. Your body may adapt to the motion that is causing your symptoms, for example, you may feel better a couple of days into your cruise.

Some people may not feel better once they stop travelling, or may be seriously incapacitated by motion sickness. In these cases, you or your child may need to see a doctor or seek treatment.

Prevention is better than cure

Avoiding motion sickness in the first place is more effective than trying to treat it once you have it. Try these simple tips for preventing or easing motion sickness, especially if you’re travelling with children.

  • Close your eyes or gaze elsewhere: Try looking out a window or at the horizon. Avoid reading and playing games as this can worsen motion sickness.
  • Minimise head and body movements: Lie down or recline as much as possible. A pillow or headrest can help keep your head still.
  • Get a seat or cabin in the middle of a boat or plane: This also helps reduce body movement. Sitting over an aeroplane wing may feel less bumpy.
  • Sit in or near the front of a car: Avoid the back seat in larger vehicles. Driving rather than being a passenger may lessen car sickness.
  • Get some fresh air: Open a window, or put on a fan or air conditioning. Avoid getting too hot.
  • Stay calm and relax: When you worry about motion sickness you are more likely to get it. Try listening to music and focusing on your breathing.
  • Avoid alcohol and heavy, greasy meals: Have a snack or light meal before travelling and smaller, more frequent meals during long trips.

Medicines for motion sickness

If simple preventative steps don’t work on their own, or haven’t in the past, you can try a medicine for motion sickness. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about a suitable medicine for you or your child.

If you take a medicine, you will usually need to take it before your journey to prevent symptoms developing. Motion sickness delays digestion, so your body will not absorb a medicine as well if you take it when you already have symptoms.

Hyoscine hydrobromide (brands include Kwells and Travacalm HO) is the main medicine used for motion sickness and is available over the counter in Australia.

Antihistamines such as dimenhydrinate (in Travacalm Original) or promethazine (e.g. Phenergan) are also used but may be less effective than hyoscine.

If you need to buy a medicine for you or your child while travelling overseas, ensure you get advice on a suitable medicine from a reputable health professional.

Beware side effects and check before giving to children

  • Medicines for motion sickness can cause side effects that may affect your ability to drive or perform other activities safely.
  • Hyoscine commonly causes drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness, as well as dry mouth, constipation, problems urinating, and confusion (especially in older people).
  • Antihistamines can also cause these side effects, and in rare cases their use has caused excitability, hallucinations, and seizures (fits), especially in children.
  • Medicines for motion sickness should not be given to some children, particularly those younger than 2 years. The good news is that children in this age group don’t usually get motion sickness so won’t need a medicine. Read the label to be sure a medicine is safe to give your child.

Get advice about other therapies

Some complementary medicines and other therapies have been suggested for motion sickness, but the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed.

Ginger has a long history of being used as a remedy for nausea and vomiting and so is commonly used to help prevent symptoms of motion sickness. Some studies have found ginger supplements to be beneficial for motion sickness, while others have found no benefit.

If you are considering a ginger supplement check with your doctor or pharmacist that it will not affect any other medicines you may be taking.

Some complementary therapists also claim that acupressure bands can be an effective treatment for motion sickness. These are stretchy bands worn around your wrists that apply pressure to a particular point on the inside of your wrist (between the two tendons that run down your inner arm). However, there is little research into acupressure bands used specifically to treat motion sickness.

If you have questions about your medicines, talk to your doctor, pharmacist or call the NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424).

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