If you dread getting into a car or bus, or onto a plane or boat, because it makes you ill, you are not alone. It is believed that motion sickness symptoms affect between 15 and 25 percent of the general population. If motion sickness strikes during your honeymoon cruise, a business trip, or just when you are on a road trip with the family, knowing how to prevent it, and how to treat the symptoms, can make the trip much more enjoyable.
What Is Motion Sickness?
Motion sickness causes nausea, vomiting, dizziness and other unpleasant symptoms while you are moving on a boat, train, airplane, car or amusement ride. The symptoms typically stop when the motion stops. However, for some, symptoms may continue until the body and mind are once again in sync.
Functionally, it occurs when the physical sense of movement and our visual perception of movement differ. For example, if you are riding in the back seat of a vehicle, your muscles and coils of the inner ear sense the movement, but your line of sight may be blocked. This can cause poor communication in your vestibular system, resulting in motion sickness.
The vestibular system includes the brain and the inner ear and it is responsible for balance and eye movements. (1) A miscommunication in the vestibular system can cause the symptoms, which can be debilitating when severe. Prescribed medications are available, and many natural treatments can help abate the symptoms. But generally, it is easier to prevent rather than cure.
There is a new condition called “digital motion sickness.” It strikes users of smartphones, tablets and computers. And it can even strike while watching television or a movie. In this condition, the miscommunication stems from seeing the movement, but not feeling it, resulting in visually-induced motion sickness.
According to a study published in the journal Experimental Brain Research, playing console video games can induce symptoms including nausea, vomiting, dizziness and headaches, with nearly 67 percent of adults and 56 percent of children reporting symptoms. Researchers note that while playing a video game, children moved their bodies with the action, more than adults. (2)
Additional research into this condition has found that 70 percent of people using virtual, augmented, and mixed reality technologies experience nausea. And a surprising 80 percent experience oculomotor difficulties. Dr. Kay Stanney of Design Interactive has identified that digital motion sickness symptoms including headache, vomiting, or intense vertigo can last for hours after the event has ended for somewhere between 80 percent and 95 percent of users. (3)
If you travel frequently, are involved in online gaming, or use a flight simulator to learn to fly, understanding your individual triggers — and the treatments that best relieve the symptoms — is a must.
Motion Sickness Signs & Symptoms
While most motion sickness symptoms don’t present a serious, ongoing health problem, if you experience sea sickness with vomiting while on a long voyage, dehydration is likely. Other symptoms include:
- Pale skin
- Cold sweats
- Increased salivation
- Balance problems
Causes & Risk Factors
Motion, or perceived motion, and a miscommunication between the inner ears and the brain causes motion sickness. There are a variety of risk factors that are believed to make some individuals more likely than others to suffer with the symptoms. Recognized risk factors include: (4)
- Women are more apt than men to experience symptoms.
- Children between the ages of 2 and 12 are the most susceptible.
- Women who are menstruating.
- Women who are pregnant.
- Adults prone to migraines.
- People with Meniere’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear.
- Teens with adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS), the most common type of scoliosis, which affects an estimated 4 in 100 adolescents. (5, 6)
- Those with inner ear infections.
- Those who play video games, watch high-definition movies, scroll on smartphones or tablets, or engage with virtual reality technologies.
Motion sickness medications focus on controlling nausea and vomiting and often cause drowsiness. The most common medications prescribed include: (07)
Scopolamine: Not recommended for individuals taking cough, cold or allergy medications and some natural supplements as it is known to make you drowsy. Alcohol increases the side effects and is not recommended. Precaution is advised for those with glaucoma, heart, liver or kidney disease, for pregnant (or those planning a pregnancy) or breast-feeding women, or if surgery (including dental surgery) is scheduled. (08)
Promethazine: Reported side effects include drowsiness, dizziness, constipation, blurred vision and dry mouth. In some cases, fainting, a slow heartbeat, mood changes including hallucinations, nervousness, confusion and irritability are possible. Rarely, a very severe condition called neuroleptic malignant syndrome is possible and must be treated by emergency physicians immediately. Symptoms include severe tiredness, weakness, severe confusion, sweating, fast and irregular heartbeat, and dark urine. (09)
Cyclizine: A common motion sickness medication that is an antihistamine used to reduce dizziness and nausea associated with inner ear disturbances. Take precaution if you are pregnant or breast-feeding, have heart failure, impaired liver function, glaucoma, epilepsy, prostate problems, porphyria, and or if you take certain other medications. Side effects include drowsiness, blurred vision, dry mouth, headache, constipation, and skin rash. (10)
Dramamine: Another antihistamine often prescribed for this condition. Take exactly as prescribed, taking the first dose 30 minutes to 60 minutes before travel. Drowsiness, constipation, blurred vision and dry mouth are fairly common. Other, rarer side effects include confusion, restlessness, fast or irregular heartbeat, tremors, difficulty urinating, and seizures. (11)
Meclizine: Speak to your physician if you have liver or kidney disease, asthma, glaucoma, enlarged prostate or urination problems before taking this motion sickness medication. Drinking alcohol can increase certain side effects and is not recommended. Similarly, cold or allergy medicines as well as sedatives, narcotic pain medications, sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, and certain medications for seizures, depression or anxiety can make the sleepiness worse. (12)
13 Natural Motion Sickness Treatments
- Crackers and Carbonation. Nibble on dry saltine-type crackers and sip a carbonated beverage or natural sparkling water to relieve nausea. (13)
- Stay hydrated! Dehydration can occur, particularly with vomiting. Sip water or herbal tea to soothe the stomach and to maintain proper hydration levels in your body. In the event you are on a cruise, and can’t disembark to relieve the symptoms, prolonged vomiting may require IV fluids to rebalance your electrolytes.
- Biofeedback Training. For frequent travelers or those with careers that require interaction with virtual reality technologies, games, or high-definition movies, biofeedback therapy may be helpful to prevent symptoms.
- Acupressure Bands. Elasticized bands worn on the wrist apply pressure based on acupressure principles and may help to prevent or delay the onset of symptoms. They are safe for both children and adults. Follow the directions for proper placement. (14)
- Homeopathy. There are a variety of homeopathy combinations that are effective for some in relieving nausea, headache and ringing in the ears associated with motion sickness. Nux vomica and Cocculus are ingredients that may be beneficial for some.
- Ginger. In addition to fighting infections, protecting against cancer, reducing cholesterol, and protecting against stroke and heart disease, ginger has been shown to prevent motion sickness, particularly in circular movements like in a flight simulator or on an amusement ride. Take 250 milligrams three times a day in advance of travel. Use caution if you are taking blood-thinners. (15)
- Peppermint. Orally, and as aromatherapy, peppermint helps to relieve symptoms of nausea. Sip organic peppermint tea. Take a high-quality peppermint tablet two to three times per day while traveling. Or use peppermint essential oil for aromatherapy purposes.
- Black Horehound. According to the University of Michigan, Michigan Medicine, European herbalists have used black horehound, a member of the mint family, for generations to relieve anxiety and nausea. Available as a tincture, take 1 to 2 milliliters, three times per day. If you are on Parkinson’s disease medications, black horehound is not advised. (16)
- 5-Hydroxytryptophan + Magnesium. Research has found that taking 50 milligrams of 5-HTP and 200 milligrams of magnesium together twice a day for three months reduced motion sickness dramatically. 5-HTP is not for everyone, and it is known to interact with medications commonly prescribed for diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, pain, migraines and Parkinson’s disease. Women who are pregnant or nursing should also avoid it as well as anyone taking cough syrups with dextromethorphan. (17, 18)
- Vitamin B-6. In the days before you travel, make sure you are getting at least 100 milligrams of B6, twice each day, from a vitamin B complex supplement. Augment this by consuming more vitamin B6 rich foods prior to departure and while on your journey. Top B6 rich foods include travel-friendly snacks like pistachios and sunflower seeds.
- Essential Oils. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), stimulating other senses can distract from the motion, thereby reducing, or preventing, the symptoms. In addition to conventional treatments, the CDC indicates aromatherapy using peppermint essential oil or lavender essential oil is beneficial. (19)
- Chamomile Tea. After symptoms have arisen, sipping chamomile tea may help to settle the nausea and relax the mind. You can drink it cold or warm with a touch of raw honey.
- Licorice Root. According to research published in the journal Evidence Based Complementary Alternative Medicine, a double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial found that G. glabra, or licorice root, significantly decreases symptoms of dyspepsia, including nausea, bloating and belching. Select a high-quality DGL licorice chewable tablets to carry along on your travels, and suck on them as needed. (20)
10 Tips to Prevent Motion Sickness Symptoms
As mentioned above, it is easier to prevent the symptoms than it is to overcome them once they have started. This doesn’t mean you need to cancel all of your travel plans, or give up the activities that you love. It just means you need to be mindful of your personal triggers and know the motion sickness remedies that work for you.
- When traveling by vehicle or a boat, keep your eyes on the horizon. If your symptoms are worse when riding in the backseat of a car, ask to sit in the front or drive.
- In a car or airplane, direct air vents towards your face, preferably with cool air.
- If a vent or window isn’t available, carry a hand fan to create your own breeze.
- On a boat, standing at the railing and getting plenty of fresh air may help to prevent symptoms from arising.
- Sitting on the floor of the boat, or low to the ground, may also help.
- Do not read or use a phone, tablet, or laptop computer when moving in an airplane, car, bus, train or boat.
- Eat a light meal prior to traveling. Avoid greasy, fatty and spicy meals for a day or two before travel.
- Listen to music. Music therapy provides many benefits, and like aromatherapy, will stimulate other senses and may keep the symptoms from setting in.
- If you experience digital motion sickness, stop playing video games, watching a movie, or scrolling on your digital device the moment dizziness or nausea appears.
- To prevent symptoms, look away from a digital device every 3 to 4 minutes. Focus on a stationary object 10 to 15 feet away for just a couple of seconds to encourage your vestibular system to “reset.”
Generally, symptoms will dissipate when the motion stops. However, extended periods that lead to a loss of fluids and dehydration from nausea and vomiting may require IV treatment.
Digital motion sickness can cause balance and vision impairments similar to being drunk. HD and 3D televisions, virtual reality games, scrolling on a phone, laptop or tablet, can alter your equilibrium. This may last for several hours after stopping the activity. A good reminder is that the military grounds pilots for up to 12 hours after a simulator session when dizziness occurs. (21)
- It is easier to prevent motion sickness than it is to treat the symptoms.
- Conventional medications can cause side effects that are just as debilitating as the symptoms the medicine is treating.
- For frequent travelers, biofeedback therapy may help the body and mind to connect, preventing or lessening the symptoms.
- Digital motion sickness is becoming more and more prevalent. And the symptoms can continue for several hours after the activity has stopped.
- Women are more likely than men to experience symptoms, particularly women who are menstruating, pregnant or breast-feeding.
- Certain conditions including an ear infection, Meniere’s disease, and adolescent idiopathic scoliosis are recognized risk factors.
- Natural treatments, including acupressure bands, can be effective to prevent and soothe the symptoms.