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Updated 31 July 2011

Motion sickness

Motion sickness relates to the body's sense of balance and equilibrium or spatial orientation.

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Description

  • Motion sickness is a disturbance of the sense of balance and equilibrium as a result of different kinds of motion.
  • Seasickness, car sickness and air sickness are all types of motion sickness.
  • Nausea is the most common symptom.
  • Children are particularly prone to motion sickness.
  • Medications are available for the prevention and treatment of motion sickness, which is usually a mild, temporary condition.

What is motion sickness?

Motion sickness is a disturbance of your sense of balance and equilibrium, resulting primarily in nausea, caused by movements such as those experienced when travelling in a car, ship or plane. Seasickness, car sickness and air sickness are all types of motion sickness.

What causes motion sickness?

Motion sickness relates to the body's sense of balance and equilibrium, or spatial orientation. We receive input about our movement and position in space from the following sensory receptors:

  • Inner ear: monitors direction of motion and spatial position.
  • Eyes: observe where the body is in space and also the directions of motion.
  • Skin pressure and muscle and joint sensory receptors: sense which parts of the body are touching the ground or moving and where they are in relation to each other and force of gravity.

The central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) processes the information received from the above receptors. Motion sickness occurs when the central nervous system receives conflicting messages from the different sensory receptors. For example, if you are sitting in a moving car reading a book, your inner ear detects the motion of your travel, but your eyes see only the stationary pages of your book. This confuses your central nervous system and makes you feel nauseous.

Who gets motion sickness and who is at risk?

Motion sickness is very common, and most people experience it at some time in their lives. It is especially common in young children, but most outgrow severe problems with motion sickness.

Particular sensitivity of the equilibrium centre in the inner ear appears to be inherited, as some families suffer from motion sickness more than others do.

If you tend to get motion sickness under one set of circumstances (e.g. you often get carsick), it is likely that you will also be prone to motion sickness generally.

What are the symptoms and signs of motion sickness?

Symptoms of motion sickness may include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Malaise (a general feeling of discomfort and not feeling well)
  • Pallor (looking pale)
  • Feeling cold and clammy

How is motion sickness treated?

Antihistamine medications are commonly used to treat and prevent motion sickness, by reducing stimulation of the inner ear. These medications are only really effective if taken before motion sickness begins. Meclizine (e.g. Dramamine) is an antihistamine often used to treat motion sickness. Belladonna is another medication used, one formulation of which is the scopalamine medicated skin patch.

It may be helpful to lie down and sip water until your stomach settles. Going to sleep, if you can, may also help.

Some people find ginger (available in capsule form) and peppermints or mint-flavoured sweets useful in alleviating nausea caused by motion sickness, although these preparations will not prevent motion sickness itself.

What is the outcome of motion sickness?

Motion sickness is usually only a minor, temporary inconvenience. Some travellers, however, can find the condition incapacitating.

The symptoms of motion sickness usually abate when the movement causing the problem ceases, and should disappear within about four hours. A few people suffer symptoms for a few days after the trip (called "mal d'embarquement" syndrome).

Can motion sickness be prevented?

If you are prone to motion sickness or if you are suffering from it, try the following:

  • Position yourself where your eyes will see the same motion that your body and inner ears feel:
    • In a car, sit in the front seat and look at distant scenery through the front window, not at objects passing on the side.
    • On a ship, go on deck and watch the horizon.
    • In a plane, choose a window seat and look outside.
  • Position yourself for the least amount of movement:
    • Ask the driver of a bus or car to slow down.
    • Sit near the middle of a boat or aeroplane (over the wings).
  • Don't read or do other close work.
  • Don't sit facing opposite the direction of movement.
  • Don't watch or talk to another person who is experiencing motion sickness.
  • Try to get fresh air e.g. keep the car window open; go on deck on a ship.
  • Avoid spicy or greasy foods, alcohol and carbonated foods during your trip and 24 hours before.
  • Eat light meals before or during travel. A light meal consisting mainly of carbohydrate helps settle the stomach.
  • Get sufficient sleep the night before your trip, and avoid travelling if you are not feeling well and rested.
  • Avoid sea travel.
  • Avoid amusement park rides, especially those that spin.
  • Take motion sickness medication before travelling, as recommended by your doctor or pharmacist.

When to call the doctor

Most cases of motion sickness are mild and self-treatable. However, if you or your child experiences a very severe case of motion sickness or one that becomes progressively worse, you should consult a doctor.

(Reviewed by Dr D. Wagenfeld)

 
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