Motion sickness, travel sickness, sea sickness… this traveller’s scourge goes by many names, but it’s the same outcome no matter what you call it. One minute, you’re mid-journey, halfway through your 4th episode of Call the Midwife; the next, it’s a mad dash for the little paper bag.
It can strike anyone, at any time, without warning and, if you’re a regular traveller, it can be a complete nightmare to deal with. So why does it happen and, more importantly how can you stop it?
We spoke to Dr S.S. Surenthiran, consultant neuro-otologist from the Balance Centre, Neurosciences Unit, Medway Maritime Hospital, Kent, to get some expert advice on this pesky travel ailment.
The most widely accepted theory is one of sensory conflict, says Dr Surenthiran. “Take a car journey, for example. A person is sitting in the back seat, the car’s going along, but they are sitting still.
“So their sensory environment – the joints, brain, senses, etc – is saying that the person is stationary, whereas their inner-ear balance organs (vestibular system) are signalling that they are moving.”
Essentially, your vestibular system is telling you one thing, and the other senses are telling you another. This creates a conflict, leading the vestibular system to become confused and over-active, he adds.
When this occurs, your body reacts as it tries to right itself, leading to what we commonly call motion sickness.
“It probably is a mismatch between these inputs, particularly when the vestibular system is most active – for example when you’re slowing down, going over bumps, taking corners – that causes the problem.”
In short, not pleasant.
Dr Surenthiran explains that as the vestibular nuclei and the body’s vomiting centre are very close to one another, motion sickness can trigger nausea and vomiting. These two are the most common symptoms that we associate with the condition.
However, there’s more to it than that: “Motion sickness isn’t just nausea and vomiting. There’s sweating, pallor, headaches, drowsiness and people can become apathetic as well.”
In some circumstances, people can begin to feel dizzy, experience rapid breathing and extreme fatigue as well.
Motion sickness can become a restrictive ailment, especially for frequent travellers. Pilots and astronauts, for example, are put through some pretty rigorous training to help prepare their bodies and rewire the vestibular system.
For everyday people without access to a centrifugal force machine, it’s a little less straightforward. “Frequent travellers will eventually get used to it to an extent, lessening the severity of the motion sickness or beating it all together.”
So it’s just a case of getting used to it?
“Well, there are some simple things that do help, like avoiding reading or scrolling on your phone or tablet. It might also help to sit at the window seat so you’re able to look out at things going by. This visual stimulus can override the vestibular information that’s telling you you’re still.”
Fresh air can also help. While that’s not so easy if you’re up at 30,000 feet, those travelling by car or boat can crack the window or head to the top deck for air. For sea travel, just getting out of your cabin and changing your surroundings can also help. “Get out on deck and look at the horizon. It allows the brain to start rewiring things and get used to the new situation.”
If you’re travelling by car, Dr Surenthiren suggests that sufferers drive themselves to keep the mind engaged. “Failing that, sitting in the front passenger seat is better than the back seat,” he adds.
Closing the eyes works for some people. Although, we wouldn’t advise that approach if you’re the one behind the wheel.
|Tips for dealing with motion sickness|
|Avoiding reading anything, whether on books or phones/tablets|
|Sit near a window if possible, and close your eyes – provided you’re not in charge of a vehicle!|
|If you’re in a car, on a train or on a boat, try to get some fresh air|
|Change your surroundings – if possible, get up and walk around|
|If travelling by car, try being the driver|
|Try herbal remedies such as ginger or peppermint tea|
|Try out different travel sickness tablets from the chemist|
|See your doctor about prescription tablets|
Almost anyone will get motion sick if you stimulate them enough, but some people have a higher threshold for it than others. For example, women are generally more affected than men, while those who are susceptible to migraines, and children between the ages of 2 and 15, are also more likely to suffer motion sickness.
Genetics also play a part. “With between 55 and 70 per cent of cases of motion sickness there’s probably some genetic factor. If you ask most people, it’s likely that their parents or siblings will suffer from motion sickness as well.”
“We don’t know why, but there’s a very clear link,” says Dr Surenthiran.
Herbal remedies such as ginger and peppermint tea are said to work for some people, but Dr Surenthiran advises that it’s not an exact science. “There’s no conclusive evidence either way. I always say to people, if you believe it works, try it, even if it’s just a placebo. It can’t do any harm.”
Neither is medication – whether bought from the chemists or by prescription – a guaranteed remedy, although in many cases it can certainly help. It’s a case of finding the right medication for the individual, according to Dr Surenthiran.
He advises trying a few different types of medication first, to see which one works best for you. If nothing seems to have an effect, you can then talk to your GP, explaining what you’ve already tried.
However, it’s not just a case of what you take; when you take it is just as important. “Over-the-counter meds can be useful but they must be taken correctly. That means 30 mins to an hour before you start to travel. This is so it has chance to work and absorb into your system.”
This is because once motion sickness kicks in, the stomach stops operating in a normal way. Anything you take at this point is unlikely to take effect and, given that one of the main symptoms is vomiting, there’s a chance the medication will come straight back up again if you’re too late in taking it.