Overcoming the misery of motion sickness

Dr Eddy Bajrovic*

Whether you’re in a tiny ‘tinny’ on a lake or in the middle of the Pacific aboard a 300-metre luxury cruise ship, seasickness is no fun.
Just ask the passengers aboard Carnival Spirit as it weathered waves around 10 metres high overnight while waiting to enter Sydney Harbour last week.
Modern cruise ships have stabilisers that help to smooth out rough seas, but even a slight swell can ‘destabilise’ some passengers – especially first-timers.
In very rough seas nearly every passenger will get seasick, which is a form of motion sickness, to some degree.
But, on average 3 in every 10 travellers can expect to experience motion sickness during a journey – regardless of whether they’re going by ship, plane, train, bus, or car.

Not serious, but very unpleasant

Motion sickness is usually caused by a disturbance of the body’s balance system: The motion you see is different from the motion sensed by the vestibular system of your inner ear.
Anyone can get motion sickness, although children and pregnant women are especially vulnerable.
While rarely serious, it can make travelling unpleasant due to the nausea, sweating, and dizziness that typically results. Definitely not a great way to start or end a holiday!
There are steps you can take, along with medication, to prevent motion sickness or reduce its symptoms.

If motion sickness strikes, try the following:
- Change seats/cabins. You are less likely to experience motion sickness in a train’s forward cars, in the wing seats on a plane, or on the ship’s upper deck. On a cruise ship, ask if you can transfer to a central cabin. 
- If you are travelling by car, do the driving or travel in the front passenger seat. (Drivers rarely experience motion sickness: it’s also more common among back-seat passengers.)
- Sit down and face forward. Use the headrest or a pillow to keep your head still and your eyes fixed on the horizon.
- Don’t look at moving objects, read a book, or use a mobile phone.
- Stand up if you start to feel queasy.

If you are already prone to motion sickness you should:
- Eat a small meal before you begin your journey, but avoid greasy foods.
- Follow up with small, light snacks (such as dry crackers) during the trip.
- Drink plenty of water – maintaining hydration will help alleviate any symptoms.
- Don’t drink alcohol – it will make you feel worse (especially the morning after).
- Try stimulating your other senses. Aromatherapy may help distract you from the motion.
- Eat ginger or flavoured lozenges. (There is evidence that ginger reduces nausea and vomiting in adults. Conversely, there’s no evidence that magnets or acupressure bands prevent motion sickness.)
- Avoid smoking or being near someone who is.

Medication can usually help 

There is no cure for motion sickness, but there are several very effective, inexpensive medications to prevent it.
Over-the-counter antihistamines are frequently used to both prevent and treat motion sickness. Anticholinergic and sedative medications are also useful and these include Dimenhydrinate, Promethazine, Hyoscine hydrobromide (Kwells), and the Benzodiazepines class of drugs – all of which are available in Australia.
With the exception of the benzodiazepines, these medications are suitable for kids aged 2 or older. Ask your doctor for advice about the most appropriate medication for each person in your travel group, ensuring children get the correct dose for their age and/or weight.
(Scopolamine pills or patches, and Cinnarizine are also effective. While, they are not sold in Australia, they may be available at your overseas destination or from your ship’s doctor. A scopolamine patch applied to the skin behind the ear can help prevent motion sickness for up to three days.)

But, beware of side-effects

Drowsiness is a common side effect of motion sickness drugs. Driving, steering, or flying to your destination after taking a dose is definitely not advisable.
In fact, these drugs can have other undesirable side-effects. It’s a good idea to discuss the pros and cons with your doctor and try out the medication before travelling so you can gauge any ill effects – especially in children.
Motion sickness that starts after the teenage years may indicate some type of inner ear disorder. It could also be caused by a pre-existing migraine condition or, more rarely, may indicate something more serious.
(People who experience motion sickness are more prone to migraine headaches. For some sufferers, getting treatment for the headaches may help reduce the impact of motion sickness.)
See your doctor if your motion sickness is severe and persists, despite taking medication or trying the other measures mentioned.

* Dr Bajrovic is the Medical Director of Travelvax Australia.

Motion sickness is just one of the many of travel health issues you can discuss during your pre-travel medical consultation at a Travelvax Australia clinic. For more details call our free travel health advisory service on 1300 360 164.