Traveling to new places can be fun – until a bumpy car ride or turbulent flight makes you feel sick.
Motion sickness is a common disturbance of the balance system, which includes but is not limited to the inner ear. “Motion sickness is the nausea, sweating and dizziness some people experience when the balance system is stimulated in an unexpected way,” says neurologist Neil Cherian, MD.
Your brain senses movement by getting signals from your ears, eyes, muscles and joints. “When there’s a disconnect between what our inner ear is telling us, what our eyes see and how we are moving, our brain may not know how to process it,” Dr. Cherian says.
For example, you might become airsick because your eyes cannot see the turbulence that is tossing the plane from side to side.
There is likely a genetic component to motion sickness as well. “People who have motion sickness may have a family member who also has it,” says Dr. Cherian.
Motion sickness can occur with any mode of travel: on a boat, plane, train, bus or car. But the choices you make when traveling can help to lessen your chances of feeling ill.
Choose your seat wisely. Where you sit matters. “The most common place to experience motion sickness in the car is in the back seat,” Dr. Cherian says. The front seat of a car, the forward cars of a train, the upper deck on a boat or wing seats on a plane may give you a smoother ride.
If possible, lean your head against the headrest to minimize movements, and stand up if you feel queasy.
Avoid distractions. Activities and the outside environment can also make a difference. “Motion sickness can be worsened by reading or using your smartphone or by being on a windy road,” says Dr. Cherian. Try looking out into the distance, as this can help.
Eat the right things before and during travel. In the hours before you travel, avoid alcohol and greasy foods, drink lots of water and get plenty of rest. While traveling, eat dry crackers and avoid cigarette smoke.
Over-the-counter antihistamines are frequently used to both prevent and treat motion sickness. Some of the most common are meclizine (Antivert, Bonine), dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
Motion sickness bands and bracelets are also sold over the counter. “The bands and bracelets are based on acupuncture or acupressure points,” Dr. Cherian says. “In some patients, they can be quite helpful. The benefit is that they are cheap – less than $10 for the non-electric version. Also, they offer a drug-free option.”
People who have motion sickness are more prone to migraine headaches. “Getting optimal treatment for your migraine headaches can sometimes help with motion sickness,” says Dr. Cherian.
For people who have severe motion sickness, prescription scopolamine pills or a skin patch are other options. Apply the patch to the skin behind the ear to help prevent motion sickness for up to three days.
“Motion sickness that starts later in life – after your 20s – may indicate some type of inner ear disorder,” Dr. Cherian says. “Or it could be the result of a pre-existing migraine condition. There are also times, though much less frequently, that it can indicate something more serious.”
See your doctor if you’re concerned or if your symptoms are very severe or bothersome.