How to get over motion sickness

two people sitting in the front of a a car on the road

Lucy Cleeve

Posted May 29, 2019

What to do when travelling makes you sick to your stomach. 

Carsick, seasick, airsick. It doesn't matter how you experience it, any kind of sick can make travelling a misery. Mother-of-three Susie Anceschi knows this only too well after the big queasy wreaked havoc on a recent family trip to Italy.

“There are moments when you wonder if it’s worth going on holiday,” says the Melbourne dietitian and mother of three kids aged six, four and one. “We’d arrived in Italy to visit family and had been through two flights with two kids vomiting during every take-off and landing. Getting on a minibus after that second flight, I realised we’d run out of clean clothes and wipes. It was a bit of a nightmare."

But what, exactly, is motion sickness and why do we get it? We spoke to the experts to find out about the nauseating travel foe, and how to stop it from ruining your commute.

Eveything you need to know about motion sickness

So, what is motion sickness?

Also known as kinetosis, it’s a common reaction that happens when the brain receives conflicting information from the body. During a car ride, for example, if your inner ear senses motion but your eyes and body don’t see or feel the same movement, there’s a mismatch of brain messaging. This confusion can cause dizziness, nausea and vomiting. 

Who gets it?

Anyone can suffer from motion or travel sickness, but some people are particularly sensitive to it. Women are more likely to experience it than men, and twin studies have shown that there is a genetic component to the condition. Children between the ages of two and 12 are most likely to be affected. Fortunately, most kids eventually grow out of it.

“Driving on very windy roads and being in stop-start traffic definitely makes travel sickness worse for my kids,” says Susie. “Looking down at a book or a screen doesn’t help either. We try to drive with all the windows open for plenty of fresh air, and encourage the kids to look forward towards the horizon. Their seats need to be high enough so they can see out easily.” 

Experts agree. Much of the traditional advice for motion sickness is centred around relaxed breathing and looking at fixed points, such as the road ahead in a car, or on land if you’re on a boat trip.

child sitting in the backset of a car looking out of the window

Making sure kids' car seats are high enough that they can see out the window easily will help keep motion sickness at bay.

What about treatments?

There are medications that can help, but many cause drowsiness which limits their usefulness during shorter journeys and for younger kids. Natural remedies such as ginger, peppermint and acupressure-stimulating wristbands do work for some, but severe sufferers report limited success. And remember those rubber ‘anti-static’ strips people used to hang from the back of cars? Turns out they did nothing to help quell the queasy.

The sickening truth about tech

There are reports of more trouble down the road, with predictions that self-driving cars are likely to create motion sickness for those using their vehicles as mobile offices. Driverless car designers are reportedly investigating ways to make vehicles less likely to cause illness for those prone to motion sickness. 

But even staying put isn’t enough to avoid the misery. Virtual-reality gamers and drone pilots using VR headsets or large screens can experience ‘simulator sickness’. This new phenomenon – also known as cybersickness – creates conflicting brain and body messaging, just like any other form of motion sickness. Your eyes might say you’re flying through clouds in a virtual world but your body says you’re sitting on the couch. And there’s nothing virtual about the reality of the resulting nausea, dizziness and vomiting. 

As cutting-edge technologies spark a renewed interest in treatments for motion sickness, it’s good news for kids like Susie’s. “But I really hope they grow out of it,” she says. “It would be great to plan a trip away with the family and not have to worry about it.”  

Five ways to ease travel sickness

Dr Sonny Lau, medical director at Travel Doctor-TMVC Melbourne, shares his top tips for quelling queasy tummies.

  1. Keep your eyes forward and on the horizon or a steady platform as much as possible. Kids’ car seats should be high enough so they can see outside easily.
  2. No reading or looking at screens, especially when your journey is bumpy or windy.
  3. Be organised and travel with extra clothes, wet wipes and vomit bags.
  4. Increase airflow whenever you can – open windows in the car and turn on your air vent on a plane.
  5. Over-the-counter anti-vomiting and antihistamine medications can be useful. But always try them out before traveling, and take them before symptoms arise.