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Travel Sickness - Don't Let It Ruin Your Trip

Updated on July 25, 2010

Motion sickness is incredibly common. There are no reliably accurate statistics but it is estimated that, in the UK, a third of the population is affected to some degree. The symptoms include, drowsiness, headache, nausea and vomiting.

What causes travel sickness? Although various factors such smell and memories of previous incidents play a significant role, the principal problem lies with the brain receiving mixed messages.

Your brain spends much of its time processing information from different parts of your body. Much of this information concerns position and movement. The system works well - so long as the various sources of information agree with each other. But when your eyes tell you one thing, the vestibular system in your inner ear (which monitors balance) tells you something different and the receptors in your skin, muscles, joints and spine disagree with both of them - things are liable to go a little haywire.

For example, if you're on a ship in rough weather, your inner ear tells you how you're moving relative to the 'ground' beneath you - but that information is based upon the ground staying still, and your eyes inform you that the 'ground' is moving independently (because it's the ocean). And it's worse if you look at something inside the boat. Then your eyes tell you that you're stationary - while your vestibular system insists that is definitely not the case.

Not surprisingly, with all this conflicting information, you probably won't be feeling too great at this point.

Travel sickness is more common in children, possibly because their vestibular systems have yet to mature, and in pregnant women thanks to altered hormone levels.

So what can you do about it - apart from never going anywhere?

The answer breaks down into:

1. Things you can do.
2. Things you can take.

Things You Can Do

* Minimize the conflicting information being sent to your brain by reducing the amount of movement to which you are subjected. So, sit above the wing in a plane, or in the middle of a boat, at the front of a train, or in the front seat of a car.

* Minimize visual input by keeping you eyes closed where possible or wearing sun glasses if that isn't possible.

* When your eyes are open, focus on something outside the vehicle because your brain won't be expecting that to stay still - unlike, say, the seat in front of you. If possible, face forwards because then objects won't be moving across your field of vision, which can be hard work for your eyes (another reason to sit in the front of a car).

* Do not try to read; the print will not stay still. The same goes for computer games.

* Deep breathing reduces feelings of nausea.

* Distract your brain by listening to music or having a conversation.

* Avoid eating or drinking anything that stimulates the vomiting centre in the brain. Large meals, fatty foods, alcohol and caffeinated drinks such as tea, coffee and cola all come into this category.

* Ultimately, if you can stand the pain of getting to that point, the answer is to become a seasoned traveller because, with practice, the brain will eventually learn to make sense of the conflicting signals.

Things You Can Take


Many natural remedies have been suggested for travel sickness but ginger is the only one with any degree of scientific support - although the small amount of quinine in tonic water does appear to help reduce feelings of nausea. The other natural remedies seem to rely on the power of suggestion (which can be very powerful). Ginger speeds up emptying of the stomach into the bowel so you are less likely to be sick. 2g of fresh or root ginger are recommended but even ginger biscuits or tea will help.


The most effective drug for motion sickness is hyoscine hydrobromide, which works by blocking massages from the vestibular system in the inner ear to the vomiting centre in the brain (fewer conflicting messages). Hyoscine is the active ingredient in many proprietary travel sickness tablets (e.g. Kwells, Joy-Rides) but, unfortunately, it wears off quite quickly and can cause drowsiness.

Skin patches containing hyoscine are also available on prescription. These are effective for up to three days but have to be applied several hours before travelling.

Sedative antihistamines such as cinnarizine (Stugeron) are also effective. They don't work as quickly as hyoscine but they last longer. And, as you probably gathered from the word 'sedative', they can cause drowsiness.

Prochlorperazine (Stemetil) is also sometimes prescribed for motion sickness.

So, although the effects of motion sickness can be severe, they can be controlled, and eventually eliminated, by a combination of doing the right things and, where necessary, taking appropriate medication.

Tom Nolan is a dentist with over 30 years’ experience.

If you found this article useful, you should check out his book

Watch Your Mouth – An Owner’s Manual.

Also available as a download. This book is packed with practical advice and will tell you everything you need to know to keep your mouth healthy, trouble-free and beautiful for the rest of your life.

You can get in touch via Tom's practice: The Dentist in Town.


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      Emma Barnes 8 years ago

      This really helps , On tea do you mean just normal tea , Or do you mean ginger tea ? :)

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      Judith Roberts 8 years ago

      I have found Sea (or Travel ) Bands to be very effective in controlling motion sickness/nausea. They are small wrist bands with an acupressure button on the inside, worn on both wrists. Can be purchased in Boots and other places.