Motion sickness

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

Introduction

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

Motion sickness is also known as:

  • travel sickness
  • seasickness
  • car sickness
  • air sickness

In most cases, symptoms of motion sickness 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 improve after a couple of days. However, some people do not adapt and have symptoms until they leave the environment that is causing them.

Read more information about the symptoms of motion sickness.

When to seek medical advice

You only need to have motion sickness diagnosed if your symptoms continue after you stop travelling. If this happens, see your doctor to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a viral infection of your inner ear. This is known as labyrinthitis.

What causes motion sickness?

Motion sickness is thought to occur when there is a conflict between what your eyes see and what your inner ears, which help with balance, sense. Your brain receives a jumble of contrasting information, which is thought to bring on the symptoms of motion sickness.

It can occur when you are travelling by road, air, rail or sea. Less common causes of motion sickness include watching a computer game or film.

Read more information about the causes of motion sickness.

Treating motion sickness

Mild symptoms of motion sickness can usually be improved with self-care techniques, such as fixing your eyes on the horizon and distracting yourself by listening to music.

More serious symptoms of motion sickness can be treated with medication. [Hyoscine] is a medicine that is widely used to treat motion sickness and has a good track record.

Some people may also find complementary therapies can help, such as taking ginger supplements or wearing an acupressure wristband.

Read more information about how motion sickness is treated.

How common is motion sickness?

It is thought everyone can potentially get motion sickness, but some are more vulnerable than others.

For example, almost everyone on a ship in rough seas would be expected to have motion sickness. However, about 3 out of 10 people may also have symptoms of motion sickness regularly on journeys by road, sea or air.

Women are more likely to get motion sickness than men, particularly if pregnant or having their period. People affected by migraines may be more likely to experience motion sickness, and are also more likely to have a migraine at the same time as motion sickness.

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

Symptoms

Symptoms of motion sickness usually begin with feeling sick (nausea), a feeling of discomfort in your upper abdomen and an increasing feeling of being unwell.

These symptoms may then be followed by a second, more severe set of symptoms, including:

  • pale skin
  • cold sweat
  • dizziness
  • increased production of saliva
  • vomiting

Some people also experience additional symptoms, including:

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

Mal de debarquement syndrome

Mal de debarquement syndrome means "illness of disembarkation". It is a rare condition triggered by travel, such as on a boat or plane. Symptoms last long after the journey has finished.

Instead of the usual symptoms of motion sickness, such as nausea, people with mal de debarquement syndrome feel as though they are rocking or bobbing, and may describe it as feeling as if they are still on the boat. Many people feel like this for a few hours after a journey, but for people with mal de debarquement syndrome, the symptoms can last months or even years.

Causes

Motion sickness is thought to be caused by your senses becoming conflicted. It is most often caused by travel but can also be caused by rides, watching certain types of films or computer games.

Travel-associated motion sickness

The types of travel most likely to cause motion sickness are:

  • boat and ship travel
  • air travel
  • car travel
  • train travel

Other types of movement, such as fairground rides or swings, may also cause motion sickness.

Motion sickness without travel

Motion sickness can sometimes occur when you are not travelling. For example, there have been reports of people experiencing symptoms of motion sickness after playing fast-paced computer games, such as racing games.

This occurs because the realism of computer graphics can produce the same mismatch between visual information and the information provided by the vestibular system. Some people may also experience motion sickness while watching a film recorded on a shaky camera or while taking part in a virtual reality game or ride.

The vestibular system

To understand the causes of motion sickness, it is useful to know about the vestibular system.

The vestibular system is a complex combination of nerves, small channels and fluids inside your inner ear. It gives your brain a sense of balance and motion.

For example, if you stand up and walk towards your front door, the position of the fluids inside your vestibular system will change. The vestibular system transmits information about the changes in the position of the fluids to your brain, so that it knows exactly how and where you are moving. This allows the rest of your body to maintain balance.

Motion sickness theory

Most experts support the theory that motion sickness is caused by a conflict of information between your senses.

Your brain holds details about where you are and how you are moving. It constantly updates this with information from your eyes and vestibular system. However, if messages from these two senses conflict, your brain cannot update your current status and the resulting confusion will lead to the symptoms of motion sickness.

For example, if you are travelling by car, motion sickness can occur because your brain cannot cope with the conflicting information from your eyes and your vestibular system. Your eyes tell your brain that you are travelling at more than 30 miles an hour, but your vestibular system tells your brain that you are sitting still.

This mismatch of information can lead to the symptoms of motion sickness, such as nausea and vomiting.

Treatment

Treatments for motion sickness can range from self-care advice to medicines and complementary therapies, like acupressure bands.

Self-care

You may be able to relieve the symptoms of motion sickness by using the self-care techniques below.

  • Minimise head and body movements - If possible, choose a seat or cabin in the middle of a boat or plane because this is where you will experience the least movement. Using a pillow or a headrest may help keep your head as still as possible.
  • Fix your vision on a stable object - For example, look at the horizon. Do not read or play games because this may make your symptoms worse. Closing your eyes may help relieve symptoms.
  • Get some fresh air - If possible, open the windows or move to the top deck of a ship to get a good supply of fresh air. Avoid getting too hot.
  • Relax - Relax by listening to music while focusing on your breathing or carrying out a mental activity, such as counting backwards from 100.
  • Food and drink - Avoid eating large meals or drinking alcohol before travelling.
  • Stay calm - Keep calm about the journey. You may be more likely to experience motion sickness if you worry about it.

Medication

Several medications can be used to treat motion sickness. However, as motion sickness delays digestion, your body will not absorb medication as well if you take it when you already have symptoms. It is usually better to take medication before your journey to prevent symptoms developing.

Hyoscine

[Hyoscine], also known as scopolamine, is widely used to treat motion sickness. It is thought to work by blocking some of the nerve signals sent from the vestibular system in your inner ear that can cause nausea and vomiting (see causes of motion sickness for more information about the vestibular system).

Hyoscine is available over the counter from pharmacists. For it to be effective, you will need to take hyoscine before you travel. If you are about to go on a long journey, such as a sea journey, hyoscine patches can be applied to your skin every three days.

Common side effects of hyoscine include:

  • drowsiness
  • blurred vision
  • dry mouth
  • dizziness
  • constipation

Due to these side effects, never take hyoscine if you are going on a car journey and plan to drive for all or part of the way.

Rarer side effects of hyoscine include:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • mental confusion, particularly in elderly people

Hyoscine should be used with caution in children and elderly people. It should also be used with caution if you have:

If any of the above applies to you, consult your doctor or pharmacist before taking hyoscine.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines are an alternative type of medicine to hyoscine. They are often used to treat symptoms of allergies, but can also control nausea and vomiting. Antihistamines are slightly less effective at treating motion sickness than hyoscine, but may cause fewer side effects.

There are several different types of antihistamines, including some that cause drowsiness. Antihistamines used to treat motion sickness that cause drowsiness include:

  • promethazine
  • cyclizine
  • cinnarizine

These are usually taken as tablets one or two hours before your journey. If it is a long journey, you may need to take a dose every eight hours.

As well as drowsiness, these medicines may also cause:

Complementary therapies

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

Ginger

It has been suggested that taking ginger supplements may help prevent symptoms of motion sickness. Ginger is sometimes used for other types of nausea, such as morning sickness during pregnancy.

There is little research specifically into the use of ginger to treat motion sickness, but ginger does have a long history of being used as a remedy for nausea and vomiting. Some studies that investigated the use of ginger for motion sickness found a benefit, while others found no benefit at all.

As well as ginger supplements, many other ginger products are available, including ginger biscuits and ginger tea. If you use ginger products, buy them from a reputable source, such as a pharmacist or supermarket. Before taking ginger supplements, check with your doctor that they will not affect any other medication you may be taking.

In some cases, ginger can cause mild side effects, such as diarrhoea and heartburn.

Acupressure bands

Acupressure bands are stretchy bands worn around your wrists. They apply pressure to a particular point on the inside of your wrist between the two tendons that run down your inner arm.

Some complementary therapists have claimed that using an acupressure band can be an effective method of treating motion sickness.

However, there is little research into acupressure bands used specifically to treat motion sickness.

Content supplied by NHS Choices