On our first family road trip, I was excited to play navigator. I’d look down at the map, look up to see where we were, back down at the map, then up again. I was doing a decent enough job until about five minutes in, when my upper lip began to sweat. My head and guts were swimming. I’ll spare you the details of how this story ends, but it’s not pretty.
Motion sickness can be pure hell. As someone who loves to travel and also gets nauseous at the drop of a hat, it’s a discomfort I deal with regularly, but I’ve learned to manage it.
The science of motion sickness is actually pretty interesting. It’s caused by a mismatch between what your brain and body experience. Dr Sujana Chandrasekhar, an ENT surgeon at the New York Head and Neck Institute, tells Popular Science:
In motion sickness the fluids of the inner ear are moving along with you in the moving vehicle. The brain is interpreting that movement, [and] instead of saying ‘yes you are in a moving car,’ it’s interpreting it as an incorrect stimulus.
This contradiction causes nausea, but why? Gizmodo explains that it may be a natural defence mechanism. The contradictory signals make your brain think you’re experiencing some kind of poison-induced hallucination, and as a reflex, your brain makes you vomit.
It’s a fascinating hypothesis, but you’re a little less fascinated by it when you’re losing your lunch over the side of a boat. Once motion sickness has set in, there’s no real way to cure it. Thankfully, though, there are a number of ways to make it suck a little less. Here’s how to manage motion sickness when you travel.
Prepare for Your Trip
Before your trip, pay extra attention to your health. Be mindful of what you eat and drink the night before. Dr Robert Stern, a psychologist at Penn State who has studied motion sickness for the past 15 years, told WebMD:
It is important not to travel on an empty stomach. Any small, low-fat meal should help. Fat is very bad. Fat, greasy meals bring about changes in the body that will contribute to the development of nausea. Take along food for snacks to eat every couple of hours.
You want to avoid any heavy drinking, of course, and you may want to avoid alcohol altogether. The University of Maryland Health Center offers the following additional tips to reduce symptoms:
- Avoid spicy, greasy, or fatty meals.
- Don’t overeat.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Dry crackers and carbonated sodas (such as ginger ale) help some people avoid nausea.
- People who tend to have motion sickness may want to eat small, frequent meals.
Sinus congestion can make motion sickness worse, too. Before leaving for your trip, make sure your sinuses are cleared. Sinus congestion can cause dizziness on its own, which can make your carsickness or airsickness even more unbearable.
Stock Up on Preventative Products
There are a handful of products that can reduce the effects of motion sickness. Ginger doesn’t work for everyone, but there’s evidence that it’s effective in treating nausea. A study published in the American Journal of Physiology reported:
Ginger also prolonged the latency before nausea onset and shortened the recovery time after vection cessation…Ginger effectively reduces nausea, tachygastric activity, and vasopressin release induced by circular vection. In this manner, ginger may act as a novel agent in the prevention and treatment of motion sickness.
You can take ginger in the form of ginger tablets, and we’ve also recommended drinking ginger tea to help with nausea. I’ve stopped at convenience stores during road trips to pick up candied ginger, and that does the trick, too.
In addition to ginger ale and ginger candy, Dr Steven Ehrlich, via USA Today, suggests taking a 250mg capsule of ginger as many as three times a day before and during travel. If ginger doesn’t do the trick, you might try peppermint. The University of Maryland recommends “1 enteric coated tablet two to three times daily as needed.”
Of course, there’s also conventional medicine. A number of prescription and over-the-counter medications can help alleviate motion sickness or even prevent it altogether. Obviously, there are side effects. Meclizine (aka Bonine) and dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) can cause drowsiness, and you probably don’t want to konk out while exploring your destination city. Meclizine is said to make you less drowsy, and in my own experience, I’ve found that to be true. But it does still cause some drowsiness.
Stern says the prescribed scopolamine patch can be very effective, but there are “severe side effects,” including dry mouth and blurred vision. When I used the patch, I slapped it on before leaving for a day’s worth of transportation that including flying, driving, and travelling on a boat. As someone who gets nauseous just talking about nausea, it was pretty amazing that I felt nothing. But I did experience the blurred vision side effect. Plus, I couldn’t look at the scenery without sunglasses because light was so intense, and that was kind of a bummer while I was abroad.
Choose Your Seats Wisely
Some seats are bumpier than others, so it helps to pick an optimal one when you travel.
At One Medical, Dr Helen Xenos writes that the middle of the aeroplane, next to the wing, is the calmest area. You might also find it helps to sit near the front of the plane. And a window seat will help you keep your eyes fixed on the horizon, which can help your equilibrium.
Xenos points out that, on a ship, passengers in lower level cabins near the ship’s centre generally experience less sickness than those in higher and outer cabins.
For road trips, you probably already know that it helps to be in the driver’s seat. Xenos explains why this works:
Not being in the driver’s seat can contribute to motion sickness when you’re travelling by car. The driver of a car is less prone to motion sickness than a passenger, presumably because the driver’s brain is using its motor commands to control the car and can predict the motion. Putting yourself behind the wheel will keep the queasiness at bay. If you must ride as a passenger, try sitting in the front seat, which confers a sense of greater control than riding in the back.
If you do find yourself in the back, again, it helps to focus on the horizon. When you’re getting seasick, Xenos says it can also help to lie down, until your “sensory systems become congruent”.
Maintain Your Equilibrium
Motion sickness is caused by sensory conflict between your brain and body. So it helps to keep those signals as simpatico as possible, and that means trying to maintain a sense of equilibrium.
One way to do this is to anticipate the changing motion. This is why focusing on the horizon works: your brain gets a better idea of where it is you’re headed, and there’s less sensory contradiction. Scientific American further explains:
Consider the situation when one is reading in the back seat of a car. Your eyes, fixed on the book with the peripheral vision seeing the interior of the car, say that you are still. But as the car goes over bumps, turns, or changes its velocity, your ears disagree. This is why motion sickness is common in this situation. If you have this sort of reaction it is usually helpful to stop reading and look out the window. The driver of the car is generally least likely to suffer from motion sickness, because he not only has accurate sensory information from his ears, eyes and touch, but he is also controlling the car and can therefore anticipate turns, accelerations and decelerations.
Dr Chandrasekhar says it’s a common misconception that closing your eyes helps with motion sickness. In fact, he says this might be the worst thing you can do:
Closing your eyes shuts off a very powerful override. If you open your eyes and focus, either on a single point in the distance, or focus as if you’re driving the car, you can actually override the incorrect interpretation of the ear input.
Anything you can do to make your visual cues match up with signals from your inner ear will help. This means not looking down and keeping your eyes open and fixed on the horizon.
Try Some Coping Methods
Finally, some people swear by various other methods for coping with motion sickness. Even if there’s not a huge amount of evidence that proves they work, these might be worth trying.
Acupressure, for example, is a popular way to cope. The idea is that pressing on the insides of your wrists can alleviate symptoms. I’ve tried it with mixed results, but some swear it works, and there are even wristbands you can buy to apply constant pressure on this area. One Medical explains that there’s conflicting evidence over the effectiveness of this method, but it may be worth a try.
One interesting study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology suggested that “verbal placebos” can be effective in preventing seasickness. Researchers worked with naval cadets, and the experiment involved telling them they weren’t likely to experience seasickness, and if they did, it probably wouldn’t affect their performance at sea. In the study’s abstract, researchers wrote:
Applying the self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) approach to combating seasickness, the authors experimentally augmented the self-efficacy of naval cadets by telling them that they were unlikely to experience seasickness and that, if they did, it was unlikely to affect their performance at sea. Naval cadets (N = 25) in the Israel Defence Forces were randomly assigned to experimental and control conditions. At the end of a five-day training cruise, experimental cadets reported less seasickness and were rated as better performers by naive training officers than were the control cadets
Of course, it’s only one study, and there are a variety of factors to consider when interpreting these results. But when you’re feeling bad enough, a few words of encouragement might be worth a try. There are also studies that suggest pleasant music and pleasant odours can help alleviate visually-induced motion sickness.
Motion sickness is one of the worst feelings of discomfort, and it can be especially distressing when you’re travelling. After all, you want to enjoy your vacation, not worry where to find the nearest barf bag. But with a few preventative measures and some coping methods, you can work to manage your nausea and enjoy your trip.