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Travel sickness

This factsheet is for people who get travel sickness, or who would like information about it.

Travel, or motion, sickness is a condition where people feel sick, vomit or feel dizzy when travelling. Travel sickness can be reduced or even prevented by taking certain medicines before travelling.

About travel sickness

Travel sickness can happen during any form of travel but common examples include car or sea travel. You can also get it on train journeys or planes as well as on fairground rides and swings. You can even get it when you aren’t moving at all, such as when taking part in virtual reality games in amusement parks.

Symptoms of travel sickness

If you have travel sickness you may have several symptoms, including:

  • feeling sick
  • vomiting
  • dizziness
  • a headache
  • sweating
  • looking pale
  • rapid breathing
  • drowsiness

Your symptoms will get better when the motion stops. They also tend to get better or go away completely on long trips, such as on a ship as you're likely to adapt to the motion and will gradually recover.

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than travel sickness. If you have any of these symptoms, see your GP when possible for advice.

Causes of travel sickness

The exact reasons why you may develop travel sickness aren't fully understood at present. However, research suggests that it's caused by movements when travelling, such as tilting and shaking, which can confuse your 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 doesn't match what you see. This conflict between the senses is thought to cause travel sickness.

Anyone can get travel sickness and no one knows why some people are more sensitive than others. People who are at higher risk of getting it include:

  • children between the age of two and 12
  • women – especially when pregnant, when on their period, or taking hormone medicines
  • people who get migraines
  • people who expect to be sick

Diagnosis of travel sickness

If you find you get travel sickness, see your pharmacist. If you have severe or frequent travel sickness, you may need to see your GP.

Your pharmacist will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.

Treatment of travel sickness

There are many over-the-counter medicines available from a pharmacy.

Medicines

Some examples of medicines that are used to treat travel sickness are listed below. Ideally, take these before you travel.

Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine and if you have any questions, ask your GP or pharmacist for advice.

Hyoscine

Hyoscine hydrobromide is one of the most effective medicines for preventing travel sickness. It works by blocking the confusing nerve signals from your vestibular system. You can buy hyoscine tablets (eg Kwells, Joy Rides) over-the-counter at a pharmacy. You need to take them about 30 minutes before you travel and their effect lasts for about six hours.

If you have severe travel sickness, your GP may prescribe hyoscine as a skin patch (Scopoderm TTS). You stick the patch onto your skin behind your ear five or six hours before you travel. It can prevent travel sickness for up to three days. The patches are only suitable for adults and children over the ages of 10.

Hyoscine may cause side-effects such as a dry mouth, drowsiness, blurry vision and dizziness.

Antihistamines

Antihistamines (eg cinnarizine and cyclizine) can help reduce travel sickness. You need to take antihistamines about two hours before you travel. Some antihistamines can cause drowsiness, such as promethazine.

Complementary therapies

Acupressure

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 help pregnant women with morning sickness, but there hasn't been much research about its effect on travel sickness.

Ginger

Ginger is a traditional herbal remedy for travel sickness. There is some evidence that ginger may be effective for pregnant women with morning sickness and it may also help people feel less sick following surgery and cancer patients having chemotherapy. But there have been few studies on its effect on travel sickness. You can take ginger in many ways, such as in tea or as capsules containing ginger powder.

Preventing travel sickness

As well as the methods listed under our treatment section, there are several things you can do to help prevent travel sickness when you're travelling including the following.

  • Your position can affect your chances of getting travel sickness – wherever possible, drive a car instead of being a passenger, sit in the front seat of a car or bus, sit over the wing in a plane, or sit in the centre of a ship or on the upper deck.
  • 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.
  • Don't smoke before or while travelling.
  • Don't drink alcohol before or while travelling.
  • Try to distract yourself – play travel games or listen to music.

Some people find that lying down helps but this isn't always possible if you’re travelling by car or plane. Others find that the best way to deal with travel sickness is to close their eyes and go to sleep.

Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.

For answers to frequently asked questions on this topic, see FAQs.

For sources and links to further information, see Resources.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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  • Produced by Rebecca Canvin, Bupa Health Information Team, March 2012.