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Published by Bupa's health information team, April 2008.
This factsheet is for people who get travel sickness, or who would like information about it.
Travel or motion sickness describes the nausea, vomiting or dizziness that some people get when travelling. It can happen during any form of transport, but common examples include car or sea travel.
Lots of people get motion sickness, but it can be reduced or even prevented by taking certain medicines before you travel.
About motion sickness
Travel or motion sickness isn't only restricted to car and sea travel; train journeys, air travel and less common modes of transport such camel or elephant travel can all induce it. It's also a problem for astronauts, who can get space motion sickness when on missions.
Travel sickness is more common in children than in adults. However, many children become less susceptible as they get older.
Travel sickness can produce several symptoms, including:
You may get a general feeling of illness and have a desire not to be moving along with these symptoms. Travel sickness tends to get worse while you move, but usually quickly improves once you have stopped.
Although travel sickness isn't fully understood, research suggests that it's caused by movements when travelling, such as tilting and shaking, which confuse the brain.
Normally, your vestibular system - which is located in your inner ear - keeps track of your body, head and eye movements. This helps you to change position and control your balance. However, during travel the motion your vestibular system senses and what you see don't match. This conflict between the senses is thought to travel motion sickness. No one knows why some people are more sensitive than others.
If you find you get severe or frequent motion sickness, talk to your GP.
Your GP may prescribe you medicines that help prevent travel sickness. There are also many over-the-counter medicines available.
Some examples of medicines that are used to treat motion sickness are listed below. Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine, and ask your pharmacist or doctor for advice.
Hyoscine (eg Scopoderm) is one of the best medicines for preventing travel sickness. It works by blocking the confusing nerve signals from your vestibular system.
You can buy tablets containing hyoscine are available over the counter at a pharmacy. They need to be taken about 30 minutes before travel. They last for about four to six hours.
Hyoscine can also be prescribed by your doctor as a skin patch. You stick it onto skin behind your ear five or six hours before travelling. It can prevent travel sickness for up to 72 hours. The patches are only suitable for adults and children over the age of 10.
Hyoscine may cause side effects such as drowsiness, blurry vision or dizziness, so don't drive if you are using it.
You need to take antihistamines about two hours before you travel. Examples include cinnarizine and cyclizine. Rarely, these can cause drowsiness so don't drive or drink alcohol after taking them.
Another type of antihistamine used for travel sickness is promethazine. However this may make you more drowsy than if you take cinnarizine or cyclizine.
Ginger is a traditional remedy for travel sickness. There is some evidence that ginger may be effective at reducing nausea in patients following surgery. But there have been few studies on its effect on travel sickness. Ginger can be taken in many ways, including tea, capsules containing ginger powder, or it can even be eaten.
Some people find that wearing bands that apply pressure onto your wrist - at an acupuncture point called P6 - can help with travel sickness. There is some evidence that acupressure may reduce nausea in people after operations, but there hasn't been much research about its effect on travel sickness.
As well as the methods listed under Treatments, there are several things you can do to help prevent motion sickness when you are travelling.
Keep your eyes fixed on the horizon.
Keep your head still.
Don't read - try listening to story tapes instead.
Open a window to let fresh air in.
Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke.
Avoid smells of food.
Don't eat a lot before travelling.
Don't drink alcohol while travelling.
Try distraction, such as playing travel games or listening to music.
Some people find that lying down helps. Others find that the best way to deal with travel sickness is to close their eyes and go to sleep.
Travel sickness Q&As
See our answers to common questions about travel sickness, including:
- Kumar P, Clark M. Clinical Medicine. 6th ed. London: Elsevier Saunders, 2005
- Fong K. The next small step. BMJ, 2004. 329: 1441-1444. www.bmj.com
- Motion Sickness. NHS (Scotland). www.fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk, accessed 11 October 2007
- Martin T. The body in space. Student BMJ 1998; 6: 97-98
- Travel sickness. Clinical knowledge summaries. www.cks.library.nhs.uk, accessed 10 October 2007
- British National Formulary: BMJ Publishing Group and RPS Publishing, 2006. 53
- Nurse online.nhs.uk. Hysocine. www.nurseonline.nhs.uk, accessed 19 October 2007
- The efficacy of ginger for the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting: a meta-analysis. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2006 Jan;194(1):95-9
- Hobbs C. Herbal remedies for dummies: IDG Books Worldwide, Inc., 1998
- Lee A, Done ML. Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point P6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2004, Issue 3
This information was published by Bupa's health information team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been peer reviewed by Dr James Quekett, Bsc, MB, ChB, MRCGP, DRCOG, DFFP, General Practitioner (GP) and GP Appraiser, Gloucestershire, and by Bupa doctors. The content is intended for general information only and doesn't replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
Publication date: April 2008.