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Travel or 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.
See Travel sickness - symptoms for more information.
In most cases, symptoms of travel sickness improve as your body adapts to the conditions causing the problem.
For example, if you have travel 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.
What causes travel sickness?
Travel 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 travel sickness. See Travel sickness - causes for more information.
Treating travel sickness
Mild symptoms of travel sickness can usually be improved with self-care techniques, such as closing your eyes and distracting yourself by listening to music.
More serious symptoms of travel sickness can be treated with medication. Hyoscine is a medicine that is widely used to treat travel sickness and has a good track record.
See Travel sickness - treatment for more information.
How common is travel sickness?
It is thought that everyone can potentially get travel sickness, but that some people are more vulnerable than others.
For example, almost everyone on a ship in very rough seas would be expected to have travel sickness. However, about 3 out of 10 people may also have symptoms of travel sickness regularly on journeys by road, sea or air.
Women are more likely to get travel sickness than men, particularly if they are pregnant or having their period. People who are affected by migraines may be more likely to experience travel sickness, and are also more likely to have a migraine at the same time as travel sickness.
Travel sickness is also more common in children who are 3 to 12 years of age. After this age, most teenagers grow out of travel sickness.
Symptoms of travel sickness usually begin with:
These symptoms may then be followed by a second, more severe set of symptoms, including:
Some people also experience additional symptoms, including:
Mal de debarquement syndrome
Mal de debarquement syndrome means "illness of disembarkation". It is a very rare condition that is triggered by travel, such as on a boat or plane. The symptoms last long after the journey has finished.
Instead of the usual symptoms of travel 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 for months or even years.^^ Back to top
To understand the causes of travel sickness, it is useful to know about the vestibular system.
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 travel.
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.
Travel sickness theory
Most experts support the theory that travel 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 the messages from these two senses conflict, your brain cannot update your current status and the resulting confusion will lead to the symptoms of travel sickness.
For example, if you are travelling by car, travel 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 travel sickness, such as nausea and vomiting.
Travel-associated travel sickness
The types of travel that are most likely to cause travel sickness are:
Other types of movement, such as fairground rides or swings, may also cause travel sickness.
Travel sickness without travel
Travel sickness can sometimes occur when you are not travelling. For example, there have been reports of people experiencing symptoms of travel 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 travel sickness while watching a film recorded on a shaky camera or while taking part in a virtual reality game or ride.^^ Back to top
When to seek medical advice
You only need to have travel sickness diagnosed if your symptoms continue after you stop travelling. If this happens, see your GP to rule out other possible causes of your symptoms, such as a viral infection of your inner ear. This is known as labyrinthitis.
You may be able to relieve the symptoms of travel 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 you to 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 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.
Keep calm about the journey. You may be more likely to experience travel sickness if you worry about it.
Several medications can be used to treat travel sickness. However, as travel 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, also known as scopolamine, is widely used to treat travel sickness. It is thought to work by blocking some of the nerve signals that are sent from the vestibular system in your inner ear that can cause nausea and vomiting (see travel sickness - causes 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:
Due to these side effects, never take hyoscine if you are going on a car journey and you plan to drive for all or part of the way.
Rarer side effects of hyoscine include:
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 GP or pharmacist before taking hyoscine.
Antihistamines are an alternative type of medicine to hyoscine. They are often used to treat the symptoms of allergies, but can also control nausea and vomiting. Antihistamines are slightly less effective at treating travel sickness than hyoscine, but they may cause fewer side effects.
There are several different types of antihistamines, including some that cause drowsiness. Antihistamines used to treat travel sickness that cause drowsiness include:
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:
Several complementary therapies have been suggested for travel sickness, although the evidence for their effectiveness is mixed.
It has been suggested that taking ginger supplements may help prevent the symptoms of travel 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 travel 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 travel 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 GP that they will not affect any other medication you are taking.
In some cases, ginger can cause mild side effects, such as diarrhoea and heartburn.
Acupressure bands are stretchy bands that are 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 travel sickness.
A 2006 review of several studies looked at acupuncture and acupuncture point stimulation (such as acupressure bands) for nausea and vomiting caused by chemotherapy, pregnancy and travel sickness. It found that there was growing evidence that stimulating this point may have a beneficial effect on nausea and vomiting.
A more up-to-date review is currently underway, although there is little research into acupressure bands used specifically to treat travel sickness.
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