Travel sickness, often known as motion sickness, causes an unpleasant combination of symptoms when you travel, from dizziness and sweating to nausea and vomiting. Some people even experience headaches, drowsiness or rapid shallow breathing.
For most sufferers, travel sickness is mild and passes relatively quickly, while others have more severe symptoms which last for longer. It’s helpful to know what causes travel sickness and how it can be treated before travelling so you can deal with it if it becomes a problem.
What Causes Travel Sickness?
Travel sickness most often occurs in people travelling by car, train, ship or plane. It is thought to be a result of a conflict between what your eyes can see and what your inner ears – which help with balance – sense. Signals from the eyes tell the brain that you’re travelling at speed, while those from the ears tell the brain you’re sitting still. This conflict, along with all the bumps and curves associated with travel, means a lot of confusing signals are being sent to the brain. This is believed to bring on that feeling of nausea.
A certain type of migraine, known as a vestibular migraine, is also associated with travel sickness. If you generally suffer from migraines where feelings of dizziness are more dominant than the headache, you’re more likely to experience dizzy spells while travelling.
Can Travel Sickness be Prevented?
There’s no guaranteed way to avoid travel sickness, but there are a few tips which help many people prevent it or at least minimise it:
- Avoid consuming heavy meals, snacks or alcohol shortly before or during travelling.
- Keep head and body motion to a minimum. If possible, sit in the part of the vehicle where motion is least noticeable. In cars, this is the front of the vehicle, and in boats and planes it’s best to sit in the middle.
- If you can, make sure you breathe plenty of fresh air. Open your car window or move to the top deck of a ship to get a good supply of fresh air.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water before travelling and keep water with you to sip throughout the journey.
- Keep yourself cool, which may mean wearing light, loose clothes, or tying your hair back.
- Try not to watch moving objects such as cars or sea waves. Choose a fixed place to keep your gaze on or, better still, keep your eyes closed for a while.
- Do what it takes to relax and take your focus off the motion. Many people find listening to music helpful. Alternatively, practise breathing exercises or count backwards from 100.
- See if you can have a nap. Sleeping through the journey is the best way to avoid the symptoms of motion sickness.
How is Travel Sickness Treated?
If you’re travelling and feel sickness coming on, try the above tips which can often help to reduce the symptoms.
If you regularly suffer from severe motion sickness, there is over-the-counter medication available to help you travel more comfortably. Hyoscine, also known as scopolamine, is widely used to treat motion sickness. It’s thought to work by blocking some of the problem-causing nerve signals sent during travel. It’s available in several different forms, including tablet and liquid, and is best taken 30-60 minutes before travel.
Scopolamine is also available as a skin patch which slowly releases the medication into your body over 3 days. However, side effects can include drowsiness and dizziness, so it may not be the best option for everyone, depending on what symptoms you’re trying to avoid.
For those who can’t use hyoscine, antihistamines are sometimes useful as they can help to control nausea and vomiting. They’re generally less effective at treating motion sickness than hyoscine but they are also a little less likely to cause side effects. Antihistamines are usually taken as tablets one or two hours before your journey. If it’s a very long journey, you’ll need to take a fresh dose every eight hours.
What Alternative or Complementary Treatments are Available?
Some people use ginger to prevent or treat travel sickness, taking ginger supplements or consuming foods or tea containing ginger before travelling. This is because ginger has a long history of being used as a remedy for nausea and vomiting. However, it may not offer any relief from other symptoms of motion sickness.
Acupressure bands – stretchy bands worn around the wrists – are also used sometimes as a complementary treatment. They apply pressure to a particular point on the inside of your wrist between the two tendons on your inner arm, and some believe that this reduces the symptoms of travel sickness.
Evidence for the effectiveness of these alternative treatments is mixed, but if you find that one of these methods works for you, there’s no reason you shouldn’t stick with it.
Most people can find effective ways to deal with their travel sickness, but you should seek medical advice if your symptoms persist even after you stop travelling. Your GP will then be able to help you determine whether your sickness if being caused by any other underlying condition.
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