Motion sickness

Also called travel sickness, airsickness, seasickness, or carsickness

Motion sickness is the feeling of wanting to throw up (nausea) or throwing up (vomiting or being sick), when you are on a rocking boat, bumpy aeroplane ride or a long-distance car ride.

Although motion sickness does not cause long-term problems, it can make you feel miserable and very uncomfortable, and for some people, it can make travel very unpleasant. 

Anyone can get motion sickness, but it tends to be more common in children from 5 to 12 years old, women, and older adults.

  • It's rare in children younger than 2 years.
  • Women often experience motion sickness, particularly when they have their period or during pregnancy.
  • People who often get migraines may also be more likely to experience motion sickness and to have a migraine at the same time.

What are the symptoms of motion sickness

The symptoms of motion sickness include a general feeling that you're ill such as:

  • the feeling of wanting to throw up (nausea)
  • throwing up (vomiting or being sick)
  • headache
  • cold sweat
  • dizziness
  • an increase in saliva (spit)
  • feeling very tired.

These symptoms will usually go away soon after the motion stops. With continuous exposure to movement, the symptoms of motion sickness normally ease within 1 to 2 days.

What causes motion sickness

Motion sickness is caused when the system responsible for maintaining balance (inner ear, eyes, and sensory nerves) becomes confused. This is because one part of your body senses that your are moving, but the other parts don't. For example, if you are in the cabin of a moving ship, your inner ear may sense the motion of waves, but your eyes don't see any movement. This confusion between the senses causes motion sickness.

  • You may feel sick from the motion of cars, airplanes, trains, amusement park rides, or boats or ships.
  • You could also get sick from video games, flight simulators, or looking through a microscope. In these cases, your eyes see motion, but your body doesn't sense it.

How is motion sickness treated?

Preventing motion sickness before it occurs is more effective than treating the symptoms after they have occurred. By learning to identify those situations that may lead to motion sickness, you may be able to implement a few strategies to prevent or minimise the symptoms.

Tips for preventing motion sickness

Timing Tips
Before the journey
  • Eat before a journey – avoid travelling on an empty stomach. Eat light, soft, bland, low-fat and low-acid food.
  • Avoid eating a heavy meal for dinner or breakfast. Also, avoid spicy or greasy foods.  
  • Don't drink alcohol the night before a trip.
  • Anti-motion sickness medications are useful in some cases.
  • One study has found ginger taken before a journey can help limit motion sickness.
During the journey
  • Avoid dehydration – have small sips of water to keep you hydrated.  
  • Sit in the place with the least motion; the front seat of the car, over the wings of the aircraft or in the middle of the ship. Face forward in a large ship.
  • Don't look at moving objects such as waves. Look forward at a fixed point on the horizon. 
  • Breathe fresh air if you can. Avoid strong smells from tobacco, food or fumes while travelling.
  • Avoid reading or watching a video or movie.
  • Trying to sleep or rest with your eyes closed can help. Put your seat in the recline position if you are in an aircraft.
  • Try using relaxation techniques such as listening to music while focusing on your breathing or carrying out a mental activity, such as counting backwards from 100. 

Medication

Medications are most effective when taken to prevent motion sickness, before travelling or as soon as possible after symptoms begin. The options for preventing motion sickness include:

Hyoscine (also called scopolamine)

Hyoscine is available as a patch that you apply to the skin behind the ear. It should be applied at least 5 hours before the journey. It works by blocking certain signals to the brain that can cause nausea and vomiting. Common side effects of hyoscine include drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness. Since hyoscine can cause drowsiness, avoid using it if you're planning to drive.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are less effective at treating motion sickness than hyoscine. They are usually taken 1 to 2 hours before your journey but tend to cause drowsiness or sleepiness and is not recommended if you need to stay alert such as if you are driving. Examples of antihistamines include:

Non-sedating antihistamines such as cetirizine and loratadine are not effective in preventing motion sickness.

Other treatment options

Ginger

Ginger is sometimes used to treat other types of nausea, such as morning sickness during pregnancy, so it is thought that ginger supplements (as tablets), or other ginger products including crystallised ginger, dry ginger ale (fizzy drink), ginger biscuits or ginger tea may help to prevent symptoms of motion sickness. 

Although there's little scientific evidence to support the use of ginger to treat motion sickness, it has a long history of being used as a remedy for nausea and vomiting. Before taking ginger supplements, check with your GP that they won't affect any other medication you're taking.

Acupressure bands

Acupressure bands are stretchy, elastic bands worn around the wrists, which apply pressure to a particular point on the inside of your wrist. There is little scientific evidence to show that acupressure bands are an effective treatment for motion sickness They are not known to cause any adverse side effects.

Learn more

The following links provide further information on motion sickness. Be aware that websites from other countries may contain information that differs from New Zealand recommendations.

Motion sickness NHS Choices
Motion (Travel) Sickness Patient Info, UK

References

  1. Brainard A, Gresham C. Prevention and treatment of motion sickness. Am Fam Physician. 2014;90(1):41-46