Maybe you were in a car that went around one too many curves, or you were in a boat that was rocking a little harder than anticipated when you started getting cold sweats, headachy and nauseous and then … stomach overboard.
Thankfully, there are ways to treat motion sickness, so you can avoid the sudden need to pull over the next time you’re in motion.
What causes motion sickness?
The different sensory systems in your body are constantly trying to communicate with each other. In the case of motion sickness, Dr. Clifford Hume, an otolaryngologist at UW Medical Center – Montlake, says three different sensory systems provide information about body posture and movement: your inner ear (vestibular); your vision (visual); and your neck, spine, muscles and joints (somatosensory).
The inner ear has organs that help detect motion and changes in head movement. When coordinated with the other senses, it sends signals to your brain that help you maintain balance and spatial orientation. And when these sensory systems are challenged by a swaying sailboat or a curvy road, well, your body feels it.
“Motion sickness is thought to occur when there’s a conflict between the information provided by the different sensory systems, or it disagrees with our expectations related to motion,” says Hume.
Hume says there are two main motion sickness scenarios.
“The first category is the most common, such as being a backseat passenger or reading below deck on a boat. In these situations, the vestibular system reports motion, but the visual system does not,” says Hume. “Motion sickness can also be triggered by a virtual reality environment, or watching a film shot from a moving vehicle where the visual system reports movement but the vestibular system does not.”
Why do some people get motion sickness and others don’t?
Some people are more prone to motion sickness than others for reasons that aren’t yet fully understood.
“It’s believed to be influenced by a combination of factors, including age, genetics, the sensitivity of the inner ear, previous experiences with motion sickness and individual differences in sensory processing,” says Hume. “Women and young children tend to be the most susceptible.”
To add to the ambiguity, there’s no objective test for motion sickness, so it’s typically diagnosed based on the person’s history and symptoms, says Hume.
“Once the triggering motion stops, symptoms should disappear within 24 hours. If not, other causes need to be investigated,” says Hume.
7 ways to treat motion sickness
If you’re experiencing motion sickness, Hume recommends trying one of these strategies to find relief:
- Change position: Sitting in a position where you can see the direction of travel and have a clear view of the horizon can help. Try to anticipate any turns in the road and tilt your head as you might as if you were driving yourself.
- Get fresh air: Getting fresh air or opening a window can alleviate symptoms for some people.
- Focus on a fixed point: Concentrating on a stable object in the distance can help reorient the senses and reduce the feeling of motion.
- Distract yourself: Engaging in physical activities or conversation can help suppress the symptoms of motion sickness.
- Take time to habituate: Lying down and closing your eyes may help eliminate the visual conflict.
- Try medications: Over-the-counter medications such as antihistamines (like Dramamine or Antivert) or prescription medications like a scopolamine patch can prevent motion sickness symptoms. These medications frequently cause drowsiness, dry eyes and dry mouth as side effects. Try to take the oral medications at least 30 minutes beforehand and start with the patch at least 6-8 hours before exposure. Non-drowsy antihistamines are less effective for motion sickness. And if you’re pregnant, make sure to talk to your doctor first before trying this method.
- Use natural remedies: Ginger, Vitamin C or herbal supplements like peppermint or chamomile can help treat the nauseous feeling.
“Some people prefer natural remedies for motion sickness, while others may opt for medication,” says Hume.
While there are many treatment options to find motion sickness relief, you might have to try a few to see which works best for you.
“The scientific studies of efficacy are mixed, but they have minimal side effects. Medications, on the other hand, can provide more reliable and immediate relief but have side effects like drowsiness,” says Hume.
7 ways to manage motion sickness
If you’re someone who unfortunately gets that queasy feeling every time there’s too much motion, you might want to explore some options that offer long-term treatment. While avoiding activities that trigger motion sickness is the most straightforward preventive, it’s often not the most practical — and motion sickness shouldn’t stop you from getting where you need to be. Hume suggests these strategies to manage chronic motion sickness:
- Gradual exposure: Gradually exposing yourself to the motion-triggering activity over time can help desensitize the body and reduce symptoms. Physical therapists experienced with vestibular therapy can help you make a treatment plan for this.
- Acupressure: Wristbands or pressure applied to certain acupressure points may provide relief for some people.
- Choose the right seat: Sitting in the front seat of a car, middle of the boat at water level, window seat on a bus or over an airplane’s wings can help reduce symptoms. Always face forwards.
- Avoid strong odors: Strong odors, especially those associated with certain foods or perfumes, can trigger or worsen motion sickness for some people.
- Avoid reading or screen use: Activities that require focusing on nearby objects, such as reading or using electronic devices, can exacerbate motion sickness symptoms.
- Get adequate rest and nutrition: Getting enough rest and having a light meal with plenty of water before engaging in activities that may trigger motion sickness can help. Avoid alcohol.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy: Therapy techniques such as relaxation exercises, breathing techniques and cognitive restructuring can help manage the anxiety and distress associated with motion sickness.
Find what works best for your motion sickness
It will probably take time to figure out what works best for your symptoms of motion sickness. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your doctor to discuss what treatment plan might work best for you if you have chronic motion sickness, and if you only have occasional motion sickness, keep these tips in your back pocket for the next time you’ll be in motion.
Because it’s essential to get where you’re going — but more important to feel your best when you get there.