Introduction 

Motion sickness is a term that describes an unpleasant combination of symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea and vomiting, that can occur when you're travelling.

It’s also sometimes known as travel sickness, seasickness, car sickness or air sickness.

Initial symptoms of motion sickness may include:

  • pale skin
  • cold sweat
  • dizziness
  • an increase in saliva
  • vomiting

Some people also experience additional symptoms, such as:

  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • headaches
  • drowsiness
  • extreme tiredness

In most cases, the symptoms of motion sickness will start to improve as your body adapts to the conditions causing the problem.

For example, if you have motion sickness on a cruise ship, your symptoms may get better after a couple of days. However, some people don't adapt and have symptoms until they leave the environment that's causing them.

Anyone can get motion sickness, but some are more vulnerable than others. Women often experience motion sickness, particularly during periods or pregnancy. People who often get migraines may also be more likely to experience motion sickness and to have a migraine at the same time.

Motion sickness is also more common in children aged 3 to 12. After this age, most teenagers grow out of the condition.

When to seek medical advice

It's only necessary to seek medical advice about motion sickness if your symptoms continue after you stop travelling. Your GP will be able to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a viral infection of your inner ear (labyrinthitis).

What causes motion sickness?

Motion sickness is usually associated with travelling in a car, ship, plane or train. However, you can also get it on fairground rides and while watching or playing fast-paced films or computer games.

Motion sickness is thought to occur when there's a conflict between what your eyes see and what your inner ears, which help with balance, sense.

Your brain holds details about where you are and how you're moving. It constantly updates this with information from your eyes and vestibular system. The vestibular system is a network of nerves, channels and fluids in your inner ear, which gives your brain a sense of motion and balance.

If there’s a mismatch of information between these two systems, your brain can't update your current status and the resulting confusion will lead to symptoms of motion sickness, such as nausea and vomiting.

For example, you can get motion sickness when travelling by car because your eyes tell your brain that you're travelling at more than 30 miles an hour, but your vestibular system tells your brain that you're sitting still.

There's also an association between motion sickness and a type of migraine where dizziness, rather than headache, dominates. This is known as a vestibular migraine. If you experience dizzy spells and have a history of motion sickness, you may be diagnosed as having vestibular migraines.

Treating motion sickness

Mild symptoms of motion sickness can usually be improved using techniques such as fixing your eyes on the horizon or distracting yourself by listening to music.

Other self care techniques you could try include:

  • Keep still  if possible, choose a cabin or seat in the middle of a boat or plane, because this is where you'll experience the least movement. Use a pillow or headrest to help keep your head as still as possible.
  • Look at a stable object  for example, the horizon. Reading or playing games may make your symptoms worse. Closing your eyes may help relieve symptoms.
  • Fresh air  open windows or move to the top deck of a ship to avoid getting too hot and to get a good supply of fresh air.
  • Relax  by listening to music while focusing on your breathing or carrying out a mental activity, such as counting backwards from 100.
  • Stay calm  keep calm about the journey. You’re more likely to get motion sickness if you worry about it.

It’s also a good idea to avoid eating a large meal or drinking alcohol before travelling. You should keep well hydrated throughout your journey by drinking water.

Medication

More severe motion sickness can be treated with medication. It's usually better to take medication for motion sickness before your journey to prevent symptoms developing.

Hyoscine

Hyoscine, also known as scopolamine, is widely used to treat motion sickness. It's thought to work by blocking some of the nerve signals sent from the vestibular system.

Hyoscine is available over the counter from pharmacists. To be effective, you'll need to take it before travelling. If you're going on a long journey  for example, by sea hyoscine patches can be applied to your skin every three days.

Common side effects of hyoscine include drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness. As hyoscine can cause drowsiness, avoid taking it if you're planning to drive.

Hyoscine should also be used with caution in children, the elderly, and if you have certain conditions such as epilepsy or a history of heart, kidney or liver problems.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are used to treat symptoms of allergies, but can also help to control nausea and vomiting. They’re less effective at treating motion sickness than hyoscine, but may cause fewer side effects.

They’re usually taken as tablets one or two hours before your journey. If it's a long journey, you may need to take a dose every eight hours. Like hyoscine, some antihistamines can cause drowsiness. Your pharmacist can advise you.

Complementary therapies

Several complementary therapies have been suggested for motion sickness, although the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed.

Ginger

Ginger supplements, or other ginger products including ginger biscuits or ginger tea, may help to prevent symptoms of motion sickness. Ginger is sometimes used to treat other types of nausea, such as morning sickness during pregnancy.

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 bands worn around the wrists. They apply pressure to a particular point on the inside of your wrist between the two tendons on your inner arm.

Some complementary therapists claim that using an acupressure band can help to treat motion sickness. Although acupressure bands don't cause any adverse side effects, there's little scientific evidence to show they're an effective treatment for motion sickness.

Page last reviewed: 09/12/2014

Next review due: 09/12/2016