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Don't let motion sickness ruin your travels this summer

July 07, 2016
Cruise ship

For some, the very thought of vacation makes them sick.

All the packing and organizing and making sure you’re not leaving anything behind.

But, for some, the sickness is very real. It’s called motion sickness and is a common problem for some people who travel by car, train, airplane and especially boats to reach their vacation destination.

It begins with an uneasy, queasy feeling and cold sweats that can progress to dizziness and nausea and vomiting. Anyone is susceptible to motion sickness, however, children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.

What causes motion sickness?

Dr. John O’Reilly of Baystate Pediatric Group, says doctors don’t fully understand what causes motion sickness.

“What we do know is that our brain is continuously monitoring signals to tell us how our body is interacting with our environment. When our eyes sense us moving in a car, or the vestibular system in our ears signal that we are moving up and down in a rolling boat, but the brain is getting a signal from our feet that our body is not moving, our brain has trouble integrating these opposing messages,” said Dr. O’Reilly, noting that the brain can respond by releasing brain chemicals that lead to the symptoms of motion sickness.

“Certain individuals may have a greater sensitivity to these problems with brain signaling and brain chemical release. The tendency to have motion sickness can run in families, and may be associated with a child’s predisposition to migraine headaches,” he added.

Prevention tips

To help prevent motion sickness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends for both adults and children:

• Sitting in the front of a car or bus; driving the car.

• Sitting over the wing of an airplane.

• Sitting in the forward cars of a train, sitting facing forward and not in a seat facing backwards, sitting near the window.

• Booking a cabin on a cruise ship that is near the water level.

• Not reading while traveling and instead focusing your eyes on the horizon or a stationary object in the distance.

• Not moving your head, keeping it rested against a seat back.

• Not eating spicy or greasy foods before and during your travels.

• Avoiding strong odors such as perfume or cologne.

Especially for kids

For kids, car sickness is the most common form of motion sickness.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that if your child starts to develop symptoms of motion sickness while in a car, to stop as soon as safely possible and to let him or her out to walk around. If you are on a long trip, you may have to make frequent stops. If the condition develops on a swing or merry-go-round, stop the motion promptly and take them off the equipment/ride.

In addition to frequent stops, the AAP recommends:

• If your child has not eaten for three hours, give him or her a light snack before the trip – which also helps on a boat or plane. This relieves hunger pangs, which seem to add to the symptoms.

• Try to focus a child’s attention away from the queasy feeling. Listen to the radio, sing, or talk, but avoid books or games.

• If none of the above works, stop the car, remove the child from the car seat, and have him or her lie on their back for a few minutes with eyes closed. A cool cloth on the forehead also tends to lessen the symptoms.

Medications as treatment

If these simple tips do not relieve your child’s motion sickness symptoms, Dr. O’Reilly recommends talking with your pediatrician about medications to prevent motion sickness. But, he warned these medications do have side effects, and the risk and benefits of using them must be considered on an individual basis.

“The medications try to decrease the signals to the brain, or the release of chemicals within the brain, and work best when taken before the patient is exposed to the motion,” said the Baystate Children’s Hospital pediatrician.

“Because these medications tend to make kids drowsy, you also risk having your child too sleepy to enjoy whatever you plan on doing after arriving at your destination,” added Dr. O’Reilly.

These medications, for both adults and children, include the antihistamine dimenhydrinate, called Dramamine, which is sold over the counter. Side effects include sleepiness, dry mouth, and in some cases blurred vision or confusion. For adolescents and young adults, The anticholinergic prescription scopolamine patch is an option, but has similar side effects as the antihistamines. In addition to adults, it is only recommended for adolescents and young adults. Scopolamine should not be used in patients with specific eye problems. Some patients respond better to the prescription antidopaminergic medicine called promethazine, which is also sedating and can have some other neurologic side effects. It should not be given to children under the age of two.

“Because of the risk of side effects and drug interactions all medication decisions should be made in conjunction with your child’s doctor,” said Dr. O’Reilly.

What if symptoms persist after travel?

 While most cases of motion sickness are mild and self-treatable, Dr. Joseph Schmidt, vice chair and chief, Emergency Medicine at Baystate Medical Center, said he sometimes sees patients still showing symptoms of motion sickness after returning home.

“It may take a few hours or even a few days for your vestibular system to return to normal. But more severe cases can result in our recommending that a patient see a physician who specializes in disorders of the ear, nose and throat, or other specialists,” said Dr. Schmidt.