The science behind travel sickness, and how to avoid it

For many families the summer holidays bring the opportunity to venture out on exciting road trips to far flung places.

But for some, long drives to holiday destinations or to visit family bring the unpleasant prospect of car sickness.

Ranging from a generally unwell feeling to nausea and vomiting, travel sickness can make holidays a misery for many but there are steps you can take to avoid it or at least reduce the symptoms.

What causes travel sickness?

According to GP and author, Dr Sarah Brewer, travel and motion sickness can be triggered by any form of transport and is caused when motion-detecting cells in the inner ears are excessively stimulated and send messages to the brain which don’t match the degree of movement detected by the eyes.

“Your eyes tell your brain that the environment is stationary but your balance organs say that it isn’t – this triggers travel sickness”, says Dr Brewer.

Children are more susceptible to car sickness but it can affect people of any age. (Picture: Shutterstock)

“Most people have experienced it at some point in their lives, however some people, particularly children, are especially sensitive as their nerve pathways involved are not fully developed. Before the age of ten, children are especially susceptible.”

According to research by Euro Car Parts, reading, watching a screen, travelling backwards and sitting in the back seat of a car are among the most common causes of feeling car sick. And small cars were the worst form of transport for instigating a bout of illness, to blame for 44 per cent of cases.

Reading while travelling is among the most common causes of car sickness

How to stop travel sickness

To help those who suffer from car sickness, Dr Brewer has come up with some tips to help avoid its onset or mimimise its effects

Watch what and when you eat and drink

When travelling, it can be tempting to buy quick and easy fast food from service stations en route. However, greasy, fatty and spicy food can cause nausea and trigger or worsen travel sickness. Likewise, alcohol can act as a diuretic and dehydrate you – further exacerbating your motion sickness.

You should however avoid travelling on an empty stomach – have a light meal instead 45 to 60 minutes before travelling, and top yourself up with light snacks which are bland and low in fat and acid.

Fatty and greasy fast food from service stations is more likely to make you feel nauseous but don’t travel on an empty stomach. (Picture: Shutterstock)

10 most common causes of travel sickness

  • Reading (39%)

  • Travelling backwards (38%)

  • Sitting in the back seat (31%)

  • Travelling while tired (17%)

  • After drinking alcohol (16%)

  • Watching a screen (15%)

  • Dehydration (15%)

  • Travelling while hungry (14.7%)

  • Standing while travelling

  • eg on public transport (11%)

  • After eating (6%)

Position is everything

If possible, offer to drive – drivers are less likely to suffer from travel sickness as they are concentrating on the outside. If driving isn’t an option, try to sit in the front seats and open the windows to get fresh air circulating.

Keep your attention focused on the distant horizon to reduce your sensory input. To help children, use car seats to ensure children can sit high enough to see out of the window.

To reduce nausea-inducing movement in other vehicles, try and sit between the wheels on buses or coaches where movement is less, or in the area above the wings on an aeroplane.

If all else fails, try medication

For travel sickness, prevention is easier than treating symptoms once they start. Try taking the antihistamine cinnarizine, which works on the vomiting centre in the brain, two hours before a journey, and it will reduce your susceptibility to motion sickness for at least eight hours.

If you are already feeling sick, however, you can suck a tablet rather than swallowing it for a more rapid effect. Just make sure you don’t take sedating travel sickness medication or drive if you feel drowsy.

If you prefer a more natural option, Dr Brewer recommends trying ginger tablets or wearing acupressure bands on your wrists.

If all else fails, medication can help ease symptoms. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Chris Barella, digital services director at Euro Car Parts said: “Unfortunately, motion sickness is something that most of us have dealt with at some point in our life and will probably have to continue to deal with.

“No one wants to experience that nauseous feeling while travelling. Hopefully the advice offered by Dr Brewer will help sufferers, particularly if you have no choice but to travel.”


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