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Understanding and Avoiding Motion Sickness

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Question: What makes people skip car trips, plane travel, or boat rides, give up on amusement parks, and pass on 3D gaming?

Answer: All these activities can cause motion sickness. Luckily, in most cases, the cause is more complex than the solution.

Sensory confusion

Motion-sickness symptoms occur because the eyes and ears gang up to play tricks on the brain.

The human vestibular system controls the ability to perceive bodily movement and position, based on tiny, intricate structures in the inner ear. Your ear includes three pairs of canals filled with fluid that move when the head moves, plus two gravity-sensitive sacs that tell the brain whether you’re upright or lying down. The information from this system reinforces signals from the eyes and other senses.

Most of the time, this process just works, but sometimes, the input get confusing. Faced with mixed messages from the senses, muscles, and even the skin, the brain essentially says, “I give up,” and the result is a woozy, swooning sensation.

Who’s likely to get motion sickness?

Children, pregnant women, and migraine sufferers experience motion sickness more than any other populations—but anyone with a functioning balance system can get it. The symptoms pop up quickly and can include everything from cold sweats, dizziness, and headaches to increased saliva, fatigue, and shortness of breath, along with nausea and vomiting.

Simple strategies for minimizing the problem

Fortunately, none of this is contagious (although watching someone else struggle with motion sickness can trigger it). Here are a few things you can do:

  • Drive instead of riding, or at least face the direction of travel. Rear-facing seats only magnify the sensory confusion, as do back seats and third rows.
  • In flight, choose a window seat over the wings. Passengers feel less motion sitting there, which matches up with what they see out the window.
  • On a boat, stay on deck to avoid magnifying a choppy ride. On a cruise, ask for a cabin near the water line, away from the back of the ship.
  • Watch the horizon. This can give the brain visual “proof” of actual movement and help the body reestablish its sense of balance. Alternatively, take a nap if you can.
  • Chew gum. Once upon a time, airlines handed out gum at takeoff, mostly to help passengers avoid the ear-popping effects of changing altitude, but chewing can ease motion sickness, too.
  • Don’t try to read or look at a mobile device. Attempting to focus on an immobile object only increases the confusing input that the brain’s trying to sort out.
  • Stay hydrated. Skip alcohol and caffeine. Avoid strong odors, spicy food, and any form of tobacco.

In most cases, the symptoms stop when the motion itself stops, but for some unlucky people, even getting back on solid ground doesn’t end the agony. In these cases, and when the symptoms are extreme, talk to a doctor about preventive measures. These can include over-the-counter antihistamines, as well as prescription medications to take before the trip starts. Designed to treat nausea and vomiting, these medications may not be suitable for children and can cause side effects.

It’s encouraging to know that many motion-sickness sufferers discover that the more trips they take and the older they get, the more their symptoms subside. So hang in there—and let us know if you find something that works particularly well for you.