How to prevent motion sickness

preventing motion sicknessIf you've spent much time on the water, you probably know the discomfort of motion sickness: the nausea, cold sweats, dizziness and, perhaps, vomiting. It's commonly called "sea sickness", but motion sickness can strike whether we're traveling by a car, train or airplane, thrill-seeking at an amusement park or even riding a horse.

And, it isn't a sign of weakness. Marines, Air Force pilots and most astronauts have to battle with it.

So, what causes motion sickness and how can it be prevented?

While it may feel like the contents of your stomach are being sloshed around, the problem is actually percolating a little higher up -- in your brain.

The brain receives constant updates from the eyes, liquid in the inner ear and muscles regarding the status of our body. And, in most cases those messages are consistent. When the brain receives conflicting information, however, such as our ears and muscles indicating movement when our eyes "say" we're stationary, the result can be motion sickness. Fortunately, once the mixed signals cease, the symptoms normally subside quickly.

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How to prevent motion sickness

Most importantly, try to minimize the amount of movement, and synchronize the messages coming from our senses:

  • when traveling by ship: request a cabin near water level (where rocking is the least) and in the front or middle of the ship. When on deck focus on the horizon.
  • when flying: request a seat over a wing (again, where the craft is most stable) and direct the air vent to blow toward your face.
  • when traveling by car, bus or train: in a car or bus, sit in the front and try to keep air circulating. (obviously, if you're in a car, ask the driver to 1) avoid winding roads in favor of a straighter route and 2) pull over until you're feeling better.) In a train, sit in one of the front cars, always facing forward.

Other tips include:

  • keep looking forword to the distant horizon. This helps your eyes to confirm what the other senses are telling your brain -- that you're moving. Avoid reading.
  • avoid talking with, or watching, others who are experiencing motion sickness.
  • avoid alcohol, smoking or sitting near smoker.
  • try to keep your head still, such as resting it against a seat head rest.
  • some people find that eating a light meal beforehand or snacking on crackers minimizes nausea. Others, however, report that this makes the situation worse. In any case, eating, or even smelling, spicy or greasy food should be avoided.
  • drink Chamomile tea or a carbonated beverage like ginger ale to calm the stomach or prevent dehydration in the event of vomiting.
  • try to distract your attention. Consider using essential oils or flavored throat lozenges.
  • many people have found acupuncture or magnets to be helpful for reducing or preventing nausea. And you'll find pressure bracelets, developed specifically for motion sickness, available at the drugstore -- though the evidence behind them is not conclusive.
  • tuck a leak-proof, plastic bag in your purse or pocket, just in case.

Pharmaceutical options include:

  • Take an antihistamine such as Dramamine or Benadryl. Unfortunately, the least sedating antihistamine options appear to also be the least effective against motion sickness -- so expect fatigue. Other medications, both oral and Scopolamine prescription, press-on patches are also available for adults.

    Please note:
    1) consult with a pharmacist or doctor before giving any of the medications to children -- since severe adverse reactions are possible. The Scopolamine patch should NEVER be given to children.
    2) side effects may include fatigue (from the oral medications) as well as dry mouth and/or blurred vision (from the Scopolamine patch). Since individuals respond differently, you may want to do a test run of the medication ahead of time.
    3) If taking the antihistamines or other medications, you'll need to be proactive. Most take an hour or so to take effect. The behind-the-ear patch should be applied 6-8 hours ahead of time. And, of course, pregnant women should consult with a physician before taking any medications.

Motion sickness mini quiz

Question 1
Is it true that some people are immune from getting motion sickness?

Select: Yes No

While some people are less susceptible, everyone has a point where sufficient stimulation will produce motion sickness.

Groups at an increased risk of motion sickness are:

  1. children ages 2-12 (fortunately, infants and toddlers rarely display the signs of motion sickness).
  2. women who may be pregnant, menstruating or are on hormone therapy
  3. persons who suffer from migraine headaches
  4. persons taking certain medications which include a variety of antibiotics, antiparasitics, oral contraceptives, asthma medication, antidepressants, cardiovascular medications and pain killers.

Question 2
If you're expecting to experience motion sickness, does it increase your chances of developing it?

Select: Yes No

People who expect to become sea sick are more likely to experience motion sickness. So are those who suffer from a high level of fear or anxiety.

Question 3
If a person is frequently exposed to the conditions that cause motion sickness will it make them less susceptible?

Select: Yes No

While most people can build up a tolerance to motion sickness, the benefits may persist only as long as the exposure is continued. For example, when a fisherman or military pilot comes back from vacation, it often takes a while for their system to readapt.

Question 4
Ginger has a reputation for minimizing or preventing motion sickness, but does it really work?

Select: Yes No

While there is evidence to show that ginger helps reduce nausea, dizziness and vomiting associated with pregnancy and surgery (where the nausea is caused by physiological processes within the body), research on its ability to prevent motion sickness has been less definite. However, ginger may be a viable option considering:
1) it has few side effects when taken in small doses
2) a 2003 article in the American journal of physiology concluded "ginger may act as a novel agent in the prevention and treatment of motion sickness."
3) the MythBusters television program found ginger pills to be the only effective non pharmaceutical way of preventing motion sickness.

Question 5
Is it possible to experience motion sickness when you're not even moving?

Select: Yes No

As mentioned earlier, motion sickness can occur when our brain receives mixed messages from our senses. In most cases, the eyes indicate that we're stationary while our muscles and inner ear report we're moving. The same can happen, however, when the roles are reversed -- as is the case in virtual reality machines or flight simulators. These are examples where our eyes would swear we're moving when everything else says we're not.


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Showing comment(s)
February 26, 2011
When I read your suggestion to direct the air vent toward your face when flying, it made me wonder; like any other dog, ours loves having her head out the window when she's in the car. We assumed that she just enjoys the wind in her face or the outdoor smells, but now I wonder if dogs do this to prevent car sickness. (I sort of doubt it since she never gets ill if we keep the windows up -- but it's just a thought.) Good article. Thanks.
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