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Motion sickness

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Motion sickness, or travel sickness, occurs when the movement of a car, train, or boat you are traveling in causes a mismatch between the signals from the balance sensors in your ear and the sense of balance you get through your eyesight. Think of being on a boat - it feels like it's rocking (the sensor in your ear tells your brain you're in motion), but when you look at the horizon, it's flat and still (your eyes tell your brain that you're stationary).

This mismatch can cause some people to have symptoms of nausea, dizziness, headaches, and feeling genuinely unwell. If you are on a mode of transport for more than a couple of days (such as on a cruise), the majority of people will find their body adapts, and the symptoms improve.

It is not known why some people suffer from motion sickness more than others. It is more common in women and people who suffer from migraines. It is also very common in children; however, the majority will grow out of it through their teenage years.

Doctor’s advice

How can I improve symptoms?

There are both natural and medicinal ways to help with travel sickness. Natural methods help prevent the mismatched signals between the balance center and your eyes - so you must practice looking ahead at a fixed point, closing your eyes during the journey, and perhaps trying to sleep. Avoid having your focus inside the vehicle, so reading, playing games, or being on your phone can make things worse.

Staying relaxed, calm, and distracting your brain with music or an audiobook can be beneficial, and getting fresh air helps, so keep that car window open or stay up on deck. It's best to eat a small carbohydrate-based snack pre-travel, but do avoid eating a big meal or consuming alcohol.

Healthwords pharmacists' top tips

Ginger is widely recommended to help with nausea in general, so it may be worth trying, but scientific studies haven't conclusively proven it helps for motion sickness. This is similar to acupressure bands which have minimal scientific evidence to prove that they work, but some people say they really help.

Medication can help with motion sickness. You should take this an hour before you plan to travel, as it's more effective at preventing motion sickness than curing the symptoms once they've set in.

Hyoscine (you may see the name scopolamine) is the most common and most effective medication used to prevent motion sickness. It is available as patches (useful if you are going on a long trip such as a cruise), but you need a prescription from your doctor for it.

Hyoscine works by stopping some of the signals from the balance center. You should avoid driving, though, as it can cause you to feel drowsy or affect your vision.

If it's for a child, someone elderly, or if you have an underlying health condition, consult with your pharmacist or - if specific concerns - your doctor before using hyoscine.

Other options include certain types of antihistamines, such as dimenhydrinate and meclizine. These can be purchased from your pharmacy. They can also cause some drowsiness, so it's best to let your pharmacist advise which one would be best for you.

Am I fit for work?

Depending on the severity of your symptoms and the nature of your job, you may be fit for work.

When should I see my doctor?

You should book a routine visit with your doctor if you have tried self-care and over-the-counter treatment and symptoms persist when traveling or your symptoms have continued after traveling.

The doctor will ask you about your medical history, your motion sickness symptoms, and what you have already tried. The doctor may prescribe other medication which can be effective for travel sickness but cannot be purchased over-the-counter (examples include hyoscine, ondansetron, prochlorperazine, metoclopramide, and domperidone).

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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