Travel sickness is caused by repeated movements. It’s thought to occur when there’s a difference between what your eyes see and what your inner ears (which help with balance) sense.
You may feel travel sick on journeys in a car, train or plane or even when you’re riding a horse. Your symptoms may be worse if you’re reading while you’re moving. It’s also possible to get symptoms when you aren’t moving at all. For example, playing a virtual reality game or watching a film in the cinema.
Travel sickness most commonly affects children between the ages of 3 and 12 years, and women. It doesn’t tend to affect children under 2 or people over 50.
If you get travel sick, you may have several symptoms, including:
- feeling or being sick
- feeling dizzy
- a headache
- sweating a lot
- looking pale
- a dry mouth
- rapid breathing
- discomfort in your tummy
Your symptoms will usually get better when you stop moving, but may carry on for a few hours. They tend to get better or go away completely on long trips, such as on a ship, as you adapt to the motion.
If your symptoms last for longer than a few hours, or you have other symptoms too, ask your GP for advice.
You can usually diagnose travel sickness yourself, based on your symptoms and when you get them.
If your travel sickness is severe or continues after you stop moving, or you have other symptoms too, speak to your GP. They may want to rule out other health issues, such as migraine or a problem with your inner ears. Tell your GP if you have any dizziness, pain, hearing loss, tinnitus (sounds in your ears) or changes to your vision.
You should also see your GP if travel sickness remedies from a pharmacy haven’t worked.
You can usually manage travel sickness yourself. If you’re prone to symptoms, you can buy travel sickness remedies over the counter at a pharmacy. It’s best to take these before your journey, rather than try to treat your symptoms once they’ve started. See our ‘Medicines for travel sickness’ section for more information about the types of medicine you can try.
If you’re prone to travel sickness, you can take some precautions before your journey. Sit where you’re least likely to experience any movement. If you need to use a map, ask the driver to stop the car safely so that you can read it. Sleeping on your journey may also help. See our ‘Prevention for travel sickness’ section for more details.
As soon as your symptoms start, open a window so you get some air. Stop reading, doing any close work or using a computer screen and, if you can, close your eyes. Sit down, or even lie down, and try to keep as still as possible.
Anxiety can make travel sickness worse. Controlled breathing may help to ease your symptoms if you’re feeling anxious.
If you travel regularly and suffer from travel sickness, you can try habituation as part of cognitive behavioural therapy. You need to do this with a qualified cognitive behavioural therapist. Habituation involves exposing you to short bursts of repeated motion regularly until you get used to it. You may need to do this several times a day, every day for a few days. Your symptoms may not disappear completely but they should be less severe. Your therapist will also explain why you get travel sick and show you ways to deal with it, such as relaxation and controlled breathing.
Medicines for travel sickness are better at preventing your symptoms occurring in the first place, rather than stopping them once they begin. This means you will need to take them in advance. Travel sickness medicines are ideal for occasional symptoms, such as a one-off car journey. Generally, you shouldn’t use them regularly or daily, for example, on a sailing holiday.
Travel sickness medicines often come as tablets but some are also available as patches. The right one for you depends on your age, whether you need to concentrate and be alert, and the length of your journey. Travel sickness medicines are thought to work by stopping electrical signals passing between the nerve cells in your body.
Always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine. If you have any questions, ask your pharmacist or GP for advice.
You can buy hyoscine tablets (eg Kwells, Joy Rides) from a pharmacy – you don’t need a prescription. Try to take them about 30 minutes before you travel. They’ll ease your symptoms for about six hours at a time. If their effects wear off after six hours, you can take another dose. Hyoscine tablets can usually be taken by children over three years but products vary, so check the packaging carefully.
If you have severe travel sickness, your GP may prescribe hyoscine as a skin patch (Scopoderm TTS). You stick the patch onto the skin behind your ear five or six hours before you travel. This can prevent travel sickness for up to three days. The patches should only be used by adults and children over 10 years.
Hyoscine may cause side effects such as a dry mouth, drowsiness, blurred vision and dizziness.
Antihistamine tablets (eg cinnarizine and cyclizine) may help to ease your travel sickness. You can buy these over the counter from a pharmacy. They don’t always work as well as hyoscine, but are less likely to cause side effects. You need to take them one or two hours before you travel. Some antihistamines are suitable for children, but not for all age groups.
Some antihistamines, such as promethazine, can make you feel drowsy. This can affect your ability to concentrate and perform certain activities, such as drive or use machinery. You may also notice a dry mouth and blurred vision.
Some people find they can ease their travel sickness if they wear wristbands that apply pressure at an acupuncture point called P6. These wristbands are suitable for people of all ages but there’s very little research to show how well they work.
Some people use ginger as a herbal remedy for travel sickness. But there’s also little research to show this works. If you want to try it, you can use ginger in many ways, such as in tea or as capsules that contain ginger powder.
It’s still unclear why some people get travel sickness and others don’t. But, travel sickness is thought to occur when the motion your eyes see is different to the motion your inner ears sense.
Your vestibular system, in your inner ear, keeps track of your body, head and eye movements. Unusual movements can confuse your vestibular system, affecting how you sense and react to motion. This causes mixed signals between your ears and your brain, which makes you feel sick and dizzy.
Anyone can have travel sickness but some people are more likely to get it. These include:
- children between 2 and 12 years
- adults under 50
- women – especially if pregnant or taking hormonal contraception
- people who get migraines
- people who often feel sick
- people who often have inner ear infections
- people who often feel anxious
- people with a family history of travel sickness
The best way to prevent travel sickness is to travel on a different form of transport, such as a train instead of a car. But as this isn’t always possible, travel sickness medicines and alternative therapies may help to prevent your symptoms.
Where you sit or stand can affect your chances of feeling travel sick. If you can, drive the car yourself rather than being a passenger. If this isn’t possible, try to sit in the front seat of a car or bus. If you’re travelling by boat, you may find it helps if you sit in the centre or on the upper deck. Arrange a seat overlooking the wings on a plane, if you can.
The following tips may also help prevent travel sickness.
- Keep your eyes fixed on the horizon if you’re on a ship or on the road ahead if you’re in a car.
- Try to keep your head as still as you can.
- Don’t read or watch a video screen – look outside instead.
- Open a window to let in some fresh air.
- Don’t smoke before or during your journey.
- Don’t drink alcohol before or during your journey.
- Eat bland foods, such as dry crackers, and drink small amounts of fluids on your journey.
- If you can, lie down and close your eyes.
- Focus on your breathing – breathe in and out slowly and regularly.
- Don’t talk about travel sickness, as this will make you anxious and more likely to feel sick.
If you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t take any medicines unless they’re absolutely necessary. Some medicines can affect the development of your growing baby. If you’re prone to travel sickness, ask your pharmacist, midwife or GP for advice. Don’t take any travel sickness remedies unless your GP or midwife says it’s safe for you to do so.
Hyoscine isn’t recommended if you’re pregnant. Some antihistamines, if you take them in the last few weeks of pregnancy, could affect your baby’s health.
You could try acupressure wristbands to ease your symptoms, even though there’s little research to show how well these work. Some pregnant women find ginger helps to ease travel sickness too.
You may feel less travel sick if you sit where there’s least motion or where you can see the movement as well as feel it. This will help to reduce the confusing signals that are sent your brain, which is the trigger for your symptoms.
If you’re in a car, drive rather than be a passenger, or sit on the front seat if you can. This will help you focus on the road ahead. On a boat, sit in the middle where there’s least movement or on the upper deck where you can see the horizon clearly. If you’re travelling by air, you may find that sitting over the wing helps.
Not all travel sickness medicines can be taken by young children. Check with a pharmacist before you give any travel sickness medicines to your child. And always read the patient information that comes with your medicine.
Hyoscine tablets can usually be taken by children over three years. Hyoscine skin patches, which can be prescribed by your GP, are suitable for children over 10 years. You’ll need to check each antihistamine product separately though, as their suitability for different ages varies.
Children are more likely than adults to get side effects from travel sickness medicines. Side effects may include:
- a dry mouth
If you don’t want to use medicines, or they’re not suitable, your child can try wearing acupressure wristbands. Some people find them very helpful, but there’s little research to show they work.
If your child’s travel sickness is severe, or medicines don’t work, make an appointment to see your GP.
- Motion sickness. BMJ Best Practice. bestpractice.bmj.com, last updated March 2016
- Motion sickness. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision May 2016
- Drugs used in nausea and vertigo. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Motion sickness. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated March 2016
- Anticholinergic toxicity. Medscape. emedicine.medscape.com, updated July 2016
- Hyoscine hydrobromide. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Cyclizine. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Cinnarizine. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Antihistamines. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Ginger. The MSD Manuals. www.msdmanuals.com, last full review/revision January 2016
- Prescribing in pregnancy. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Hyoscine hydrobromide. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
- Promethazine hydrochloride. NICE British National Formulary. www.evidence.nhs.uk, reviewed March 2017
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Reviewed by Dylan Merkett, Bupa Health Content Team, June 2017
Expert reviewer, Dr Adrian Raby, General Practitioner and Clinical Lecturer
Next review due June 2020
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