Travel sickness: what causes it and how to cure it

Advice on how to avoid getting car sick and what to do if you do feel ill, plus why kids are more likely to suffer

Wednesday, 19th May 2021, 9:00 am
Children are particularly susceptible to car sickness

Summer is on its way and lockdown restrictions have lifted enough for us to start thinking about venturing a little further afield.

Whether it’s for a day at the beach, a visit to relatives or a staycation roadtrip, many of us will be looking forward to hitting the open road but for some people a long car journey brings the fear of car sickness rather than the joy of getting out and about.

For two thirds of people travel sickness manifests as an unpleasant feeling of nausea but for an unfortunately 31 per cent that extends into actually vomiting. And research has found that car sickness is well named, with 44 per cent of sufferers blaming travelling in a small car for their illness.

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Reading or looking at a screen are among the most common causes of travel sickness

Among the most common causes for car sickness are reading while in motion, travelling in the back seat and travelling while tired.

According to GP and author, Dr Sarah Brewer, travel sickness can be triggered by any form of transport and is caused when motion-detecting cells in the inner ears are excessively stimulated and send messages to the brain which don’t match the degree of movement detected by the eyes.

She explained: “Your eyes tell your brain that the environment is stationary but your balance organs say that it isn’t - this triggers travel sickness.

“Most people have experienced travel sickness at some point in their lives, however, some people, particularly children, are especially sensitive as their nerve pathways involved are not fully developed. Before the age of ten, children are especially susceptible.”

Graphic: Kim Mogg/JPI Media

The research by automotive retailer Euro Car Parts found that other common practices such as watching a screen or travelling after eating were cited by many sufferers of car sickness.

How to avoid getting travel sick

To help travel sickness sufferers Dr Brewer has offered the following advice to make journeys more bearable.

Watch what and when you eat and drink

When travelling, it can be tempting to buy quick and easy fast food from service stations en route. However, greasy, fatty and spicy food can cause nausea and trigger or worsen travel sickness. Likewise, alcohol can act as a diuretic and dehydrate you - further exacerbating your motion sickness.

You should however avoid travelling on an empty stomach - have a light meal instead 45 to 60 minutes before travelling, and top yourself up with light snacks which are bland and low in fat and acid.

Position is everything

If possible, offer to drive - drivers are less likely to suffer from travel sickness as they are concentrating on the outside. If driving isn’t an option, try to sit in the front seats and open the windows to get fresh air circulating. Keep your attention focused on the distant horizon to reduce your sensory input. Nearly half of people (46 per cent) find fresh air to be the most effective remedy for motion sickness while travelling in the back seats is the third most common cause of motion sickness for a third of sufferers. To help children, use car seats to ensure they sit high enough to see out of the window.

To reduce nausea-inducing movement in other vehicles, try and sit between the wheels on buses or coaches where movement is less, or in the area above the wings on an aeroplane.

If all else fails, try medication

For travel sickness, prevention is easier than treating symptoms once they start. Dr Brewer recommends an antihistamine called cinnarizine which works on the vomiting centre in the brain to stop nausea, and on the balance organs in the inner ear to reduce sensitivity to motion.

“Take cinnarizine two hours before a journey, and it will reduce your susceptibility to motion sickness for at least 8 hours. If you are already feeling sick, however, you can suck a tablet rather than swallowing it for a more rapid effect. Just make sure you don't take sedating travel sickness medication or drive if you feel drowsy.”