Most people experience motion sickness under severe conditions—a boat rolling over 10-foot waves, say, or a bus ride over twisting mountain roads. But even a simple car ride can cause symptoms in many people, from dizziness and cold sweats to nausea, and vomiting. There may be some genetic factors involved, and women, children, and people who get migraines and vertigo are more susceptible. Here’s how to keep an even keel.
Motion sickness occurs when there is a mismatch between what your brain anticipates a movement will feel like and the sensory information it actually receives. If you are below deck in a boat, for instance, your inner ear senses movement that your visual system does not detect, resulting in a sensory conflict. Or, there can be a mismatch if your eyes detect motion while your body is still—as in a virtual-reality ride or when watching a movie with shaky camera work.
Help is on the way
Over-the-counter antihistamines such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine and generics) and meclizine (Bonine, Dramamine Less Drowsy Formula) can help prevent and treat mild motion sickness. (A prescription version of meclizine is also available under the brand name Antivert.) They are best taken 30 to 60 minutes before travel. Side effects include drowsiness, dry mouth, and, more rarely, blurred vision. People with lung conditions or glaucoma, and men with an enlarged prostate should not take antihistamines. Don’t take them if you are operating a vehicle.
Scopolamine is usually prescribed for motion sickness as a transdermal patch (Transderm-Scop) that you place behind your ear six to eight hours before you leave, which allows the medication to be absorbed in small continual doses. It may produce drowsiness as well as dry mouth, changes in heart rate, and blurred vision; there are rare reports of hallucinations and delusions. Before taking a motion sickness drug, be sure to tell your doctor if you are taking other medications.
Alternative remedies. Many dietary supplements are touted for motion sickness with little or no scientific data to back them. Ginger is one of the most popular herbs used, but studies are mixed. You can try it if you want—though large amounts can cause heartburn or other mild gastrointestinal problems. Other unproven remedies include anise seed, peppermint, milk thistle, and pyroxidine (vitamin B6). There are no well-designed published studies to back the claims of homeopathic products marketed for motion sickness.
Wrist bands. Pressing on a spot on the inside of the wrist (P6 acupuncture point) helps relieve nausea associated with chemotherapy, pregnancy, and anesthesia, according to some research. But there is no good evidence that acupressure bands, such as Sea-Bands—with a button that presses against the point—are effective. Research on electrostimulation of P6 using the ReliefBand is more promising. Though not all studies have shown benefit, this battery-operated device, which is worn like a watch and delivers a mild electrical current, has been cleared by the FDA for relief of nausea from motion sickness and other causes.
Other soothing tips for motion sickness
Most people get used to the motion during a long trip or with repeated exposure. If you still tend to get sick, here are other tips:
Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before and while traveling. Try to avoid strong or unpleasant odors, like cigarette smoke and perfume.
At sea, stay topside and amidships; look at the horizon or some other fixed distant point. If below deck, close your eyes.
Choose a seat in vehicles where you have a clear view of the road ahead. Sitting in the front seat of a car is best. Some people may find driving preferable to being a passenger.
Keep your head as still as possible—avoid moving it side to side or tilting it up or down. Refrain from reading, writing, working on a laptop, or doing other tasks that require even subtle eye movements.
In cars, buses, and other vehicles, keep windows open for fresh air, if possible. If you have air vents, aim them toward you.
Try slow, regular, “mindful” breathing, where you hyperfocus on your breaths. You can also try using distracting stimuli, such as sniffing lavender or mint scents and listening to music.
Originally published December 2010. Updated November 2016.