Last updated November 1, 2018.
If traveling by car, train, plane, or boat makes you queasy, there’s good news: Not only can you take steps to stop motion sickness before it starts, you may actually be able to conquer it for good.
Why some people get motion sickness and others don’t isn’t fully understood. Researchers believe it’s caused by incongruence in our body’s sensory systems. For instance, on a slow-moving cruise ship, your eyes may tell the brain you’re not moving at all, but the systems in your brain and inner ear that control balance and posture (vestibular and somatosensory systems) say, “Yes we are!” This mismatch confuses the brain and causes a variety of symptoms, including:
- Acute awareness of the stomach
- Hyperventilation (in extreme cases)
You certainly can take medications to help relieve these symptoms. But if you’d like to try overcoming motion sickness for good, here are some techniques.
1. Take control of the situation.
Not being in the driver’s seat can contribute to motion sickness when you’re traveling by car. The driver of a car is less prone to motion sickness than a passenger, presumably because the driver’s brain is using its motor commands to control the car and can predict the motion. Putting yourself behind the wheel will keep the queasiness at bay. If you must ride as a passenger, try sitting in the front seat and looking at the horizon, which confers a sense of greater control than riding in the back. If you get stuck in the back seat, try conversation and distraction to alleviate the anxiety of not being in control of the situation. Open a vent or source of fresh air if possible and avoid reading.
2. Curb your consumption.
Watch your consumption of foods, drinks, and alcohol before and during travel. Avoid excessive alcohol, smoking, and foods or liquids that “don’t agree with you” or make you feel unusually full. Foods with strong odors, or ones that are heavy, spicy, or fat-rich may worsen symptoms of nausea or motion sickness in some people.
3. Get into position.
Try to choose a seat where you will experience the least motion. The middle of an airplane over the wing is the calmest area of an airplane. On a ship, those in lower level cabins near the center of a ship generally experience less motion than passengers in higher or outer cabins. Isolate yourself from others who may be suffering from motion sickness. Hearing others talk about motion sickness or seeing others becoming ill can sometimes make you feel ill yourself.
4. Equalize your sensory cues.
If you’re getting seasick, lie down to help your sensory systems become congruent. On a train, sit in a front-facing seat so your eyes relay the same movement cues as the vestibules of your inner ear. Also, when traveling by car or boat, it can sometimes help to keep your gaze fixed on the horizon or on a fixed point. The more you enhance sensory congruence, the less likely you are to get queasy.
5. Talk yourself down.
You actually can talk yourself out of motion sickness. A study found that “verbal placebos” — simply telling sailors they won’t get seasick — have been effective in preventing seasickness. Set your own expectations before traveling by saying aloud, “I’m not going to get carsick this time,” or using other affirmative self-talk. Learning breathing techniques by using biofeedback can help in this endeavor.
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6. Get desensitized.
Desensitization therapy works for minimizing or even curing motion sickness. Expose yourself to short bursts of activities that cause symptoms, and then work up to longer periods. If reading a book in a moving vehicle makes you feel nauseated, try reading for five minutes and then putting the book down. Repeat the five-minute interval over several sessions, then increase to 10 minutes. Over time, you’ll find your body gets used to the activity.
7. Pre-treat with ginger.
Some studies support using ginger as an effective preventive measure for motion sickness. At the very least, it can’t hurt. Take one to two grams of ginger half an hour before traveling for best results. If you’re on prescription blood thinners, consult your doctor before supplementing with ginger.
8. Get in touch with your pressure points.
There’s conflicting evidence regarding the effectiveness of acupressure for motion sickness, but it’s worth a try — even if it’s just for the placebo effect. As mentioned above, simply convincing yourself you can get through a trip without motion sickness can help you avoid it. If wearing pressure point devices—such as wristbands with plastic bumps on them — helps convince your brain you’re not going to get sick, it’s worth a shot. On the other hand, don’t waste your money on magnets. There’s no evidence magnetic devices marketed for motion sickness relief do any good.
9. Ride it out.
Seasickness clears up on its own after about three days. Why? The human body possesses an enormous ability to accommodate situations like incongruence between the sensory systems. Again, in the “think it away” category, you may rid yourself of symptoms if you understand and believe they’re going to clear up sooner rather than later.
If your children experience motion sickness, be sure to let them know the condition usually starts going away after age 12. Sharing this medical fact may help your kids avoid feeling doomed to motion sickness for the rest of their lives.
10. When all else fails, medicate.
If you experience severe motion sickness, go ahead and take over-the-counter medications such as Dramamine or Meclizine for it. These are most effective 30 to 60 minutes prior to when you think you’ll be sick, and can be sedating. If you’re a healthy adult with severe symptoms, you can talk to your health care provider about a scopolamine patch to cope with prolonged episodes of motion sickness, such as during the first few days of a cruise. Be forewarned that it can cause drowsiness, dry mouth, and other side effects.
If motion sickness continues to be a problem, make an appointment with your provider to talk about your options.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Portland, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.
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