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Motion sickness is an ill feeling that can happen suddenly when you’re traveling by car, boat, train, plane, or while on amusement rides. In addition, some people get non-travel-related motion sickness from certain visual activities, such as playing video games or watching spinning objects. Symptoms can strike without warning and worsen quickly.
Motion sickness is not a life-threatening condition. However, it can make traveling unpleasant and may require some advance planning to prevent, avoid, or reduce the effects. Motion sickness triggers include:
- Rocking (boat).
- Air turbulence (airplane).
- Being in the back seat of a car unable to see the horizon.
- Reading in the car.
- Air circulation while riding in the car.
Older people, pregnant women, and children between the ages of 5 and 12 most often get motion sickness. Once the motion stops, your motion sickness stops and you’ll gradually feel better. In rare cases, motion sickness is triggered by a problem with your inner ear (fluid buildup or an ear infection). It can also occur more frequently in connection with serious medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease.
Symptoms of motion sickness
Motion sickness symptoms can be unpleasant. While traveling, the motion you experience may cause you to feel sick to your stomach. Classic symptoms include nausea and vomiting. Other symptoms might include pale skin, headache, a cold sweat, dizziness, and irritability.
What causes motion sickness?
Motion sickness is caused by an imbalance between the sensory parts of your body (eyes, ears, or sensory nerves) and the rest of your body. For example, when playing a video game, your eyes may sense that you are moving with the game. However, your body is standing still. This imbalance is what causes you to feel sick.
How is motion sickness diagnosed?
You may suspect you have the condition when you begin to notice a pattern of how you feel when you travel. See your doctor if you experience motion sickness repeatedly. Your doctor will examine the inside of your ears, look at your eyes, and ask you questions about your health history before recommending treatment for motion sickness.
Can motion sickness be prevented or avoided?
If you know you will get motion sickness when traveling, there are steps you can take to prevent it or relieve the symptoms.
- Take motion sickness medicine an hour or two before you travel.
- Choose the right seat. In the car, the front passenger seat is best. On a boat, sit at the midpoint of the boat. On an airplane, sit over the wing. On a train, face forward and sit near a window. These positions have fewer bumps and allow you to see the horizon. If you are on a cruise ship, book a cabin in the front or middle of the ship that is closest to the water level.
- Get plenty of air. If you are in the car, make sure it is well air conditioned on hot days. Roll down the window when you feel like you need more air. Direct the air conditioning vent on an airplane toward you, and sit near a window when you’re on a covered boat.
- Avoid what you can. If you know the bumps and waves of a speedboat ride will make you sick, avoid it or take medicine before going.
- Don’t read or look at your phone or tablet while traveling by car, plane, or boat. Look out the window at the horizon or at a distant object.
- Lie down if you can when you start to feel dizzy, nauseous, or like you are getting a headache.
- Don’t eat heavy meals when traveling. Opt for smaller quantities of soft, plain food, such as mashed potatoes. Don’t eat greasy, spicy, or acidic foods just before or during travel.
- Drink plenty of water. Avoid alcohol.
- Get a good night’s rest before traveling.
- Avoid certain smells you know make you sick (if you can). That includes cigarette smoke. If you are a smoker, don’t smoke before you travel.
- Talk to your doctor about alternative therapies, such as pressure bands. These bracelet-like products reportedly reduce nausea and vomiting by applying pressure to your wrist.
If your motion sickness symptoms do not stop within a few days, call your doctor.
Motion sickness treatment
Certain medicines can relieve the symptoms of motion sickness. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) recommends the medicine scopolamine for preventing motion sickness. Scopolamine helps ease nausea and vomiting without making you sleepy. A skin patch works best.
Allergy medicines, known as antihistamines, also are helpful in treating nausea and vomiting. However, these usually make you sleepy. Non-drowsy antihistamines are not effective in treating or preventing motion sickness. Antiemetics are another type of medicine used to ease the nausea and vomiting of motion sickness.
Some of these medicines are available by prescription and over-the-counter. Talk to your doctor to determine what is best for you. Each of these medicines works better when taken before you travel. Once nausea begins, eating a few, plain crackers and drinking clear, fizzy drinks (ginger ale is best) can usually relieve the nausea.
Living with motion sickness
Planning ahead is the best advice for dealing with motion sickness. If your motion sickness is mild, you are more likely to have success with medicines used to treat it. If you know you have motion sickness, plan around it through diet, rest, avoidance, and seat selection.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Can motion sickness medicines help after the nausea and vomiting have set in?
- How do I know if motion sickness is a sign of a more serious health problem?
- Are motion sickness medicines safe for pregnancies?
- Can I take scopolamine if I am breastfeeding?
- Can I take scopolamine if I am on other medicines?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.