Tips for Preventing and Treating Motion Sickness

Whoever said getting there is half the fun wasn’t a motion-sickness sufferer. Millions of adults and children become queasy and uneasy when traveling. But there is hope.

If bumpy car rides or turbulent flights make you a queasy rider, here's some good news. The symptoms of motion sickness can be partially or completely alleviated with intelligent treatment, says internist Richard Parker, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. But the best treatment, he adds, is prevention.

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For most people, preventive measures will help them avoid motion sickness altogether. Here are some strategies to keep in mind:

  • Before embarking on a trip or ride that may cause motion sickness, avoid heavy meals or spicy foods and get plenty of sleep.

  • During trips or rides, avoid reading, eating large meals (eat small, light snacks instead), looking at others who are experiencing motion sickness or talking about motion sickness.

  • For adults riding in a car, sit in the front seat and look out the front windshield. Ask the driver to drive slowly or drive yourself.

  • If on a train, look out the window.

  • During an airplane flight, try to get a seat located over the wings.

  • When on a boat, sit toward the middle of the boat and get plenty of fresh air. Do not stay below deck for extended periods of time (especially on smaller boats).

  • Avoid amusement park rides and "virtual reality" rides if you are prone to motion sickness.

Medications to Pack

If preventive measures don’t work, there are two types of medications often prescribed for motion sickness: antihistamines and tranquilizers.

Antihistamines help prevent motion sickness by calming stimulation to the inner ear. They are available both in over-the-counter oral form (such as Dramamine™) and by prescription (usually in the form of a skin patch that slowly releases medication into the body through the skin).

Tranquilizers help control motion sickness by calming all of the body’s senses. These are available by prescription only and are generally reserved for adults who suffer severe and recurrent motion sickness and for whom antihistamines and other forms of treatment have proven ineffective.

When taken properly – generally, at least an hour before you begin a trip or ride that may cause motion sickness – antihistamines can be very effective in preventing motion sickness. Unfortunately, antihistamines also tend to cause drowsiness and lack of alertness.

Alternative Remedies

Many people (for whom preventive measures don’t work and for whom the side effects caused by medication are too severe) seek alternative remedies. Generally, there are two types of alternative remedies – both of which cause virtually no side effects – that people use to prevent and control motion sickness.

The first is pressure patches. Worn on the wrists, these patches exact pressure to the pulse points, which supposedly prevents or limits the severity of motion sickness. Although many people use patches faithfully and swear by them, their effectiveness has not been conclusively proven from a medical standpoint.

The second – a much older remedy - is ginger. A plant native to southeast Asia and other tropical climates, the root of the ginger plant has, in addition to its use as a food additive and spice, been used extensively in medicine by many cultures for thousands of years.

The ancient Greeks and Romans used gingerroot for many medicinal purposes, and Chinese sailors have long used ginger root to control seasickness. Closer to home, many moms in modern cultures turn to ginger ale to control their children’s upset stomachs and nausea. The American Pharmaceutical Association even acknowledges, to some extent, "the medicinal value of ginger."

Yet, despite the long history of empirical evidence, there is still little scientific evidence proving the medicinal value of ginger. Several small studies, however, have gone some of the way toward demonstrating ginger’s medicinal value in controlling or curing motion sickness and nausea.

In one controlled study reported in the British medical journal Lancet, college students susceptible to motion sickness were placed in a computerized rotating chair. The study found that ginger powder (given at a dosage of 940 milligrams) proved better than Dramamine at controlling the nausea caused by motion sickness. In another study, conducted on a cruise ship traveling in rough seas, ginger proved as effective as Dramamine. And a third study, involving naval cadets sailing in high seas, showed ginger to be much more effective than placebos in controlling the nausea caused by seasickness.

When used to prevent nausea, the general recommendation for adults is 1,000 milligrams of ginger in capsule form, taken 30 minutes before travel. Following the initial dose, one to two more 500-milligram capsules can be taken as needed every four hours, with a recommended maximum adult dosage of 4 grams (4,000 milligrams) per day. For children, parents should consult a pediatrician about safe dosages or other factors before administering ginger or any other supplement or medication.

No one really knows for sure how or why ginger is effective, but it’s generally believed that it works directly on the gastrointestinal tract. This may explain the drawback of ginger as a motion sickness remedy. While it may control nausea, it doesn’t prevent the dizziness many people experience with motion sickness. Nevertheless, because most people report no side effects from taking ginger, many prefer it to anti-motion-sickness drugs.