Travel Sickness: what causes it and how to treat it

Travel sickness is a fairly widespread ailment, but some of us – children in particular – suffer much more than others. We look at the most common causes of travel sickness and explain what steps you can take to avoid it, whatever mode of transport you’re using.

person suffering with travel sickness

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What is travel sickness and what causes it?

Most typically, travel sickness is what happens to our bodies when we have difficulty processing that we’re sitting (or standing) still while our eyes tell us we’re in motion.

This phenomenon is explained especially well by neuroscientist Dean Burnett in his 2016 book The Idiot Brain. Burnett writes:

“Travelling in a car confuses the brain because it picks up so many mixed signals from the body. Although the muscles are motionless, the eyes tell the brain you are moving.

“In evolutionary terms, the only thing that can cause a sensory mismatch like that is a neurotoxin or poison. So the brain thinks, essentially, it's being poisoned. When it's been poisoned, the first thing it does is get rid of the poison.”

According to Burnett, this explains why one of the most common reactions to feeling travel sickness is to vomit. The body thinks it has a toxin to remove from its system as quickly as possible.

The symptoms of travel sickness can range from mild nausea and dizziness to vomiting.


How to stop travel sickness

There are a number of strategies you can employ to avoid getting travel sick or to deal with the problem whenever it arises.

Remember, not every approach will work for every person. It may be a case of trial and error when it comes to finding the method that suits you best.

A common trigger for car sickness, especially among children, appears to be reading or looking at a computer screen such as a tablet.

Anyone who suffers from car sickness should be encouraged to look out of the window – ideally the front window rather than a side window.

Seeing things to the side of the car rushing past can heighten the feeling of movement. If you’re looking straight ahead the sense of motion can sometimes be lessened.

Letting fresh air in to the car’s cabin can also be a big help. If you’re on bendy country roads, slow down – and take plenty of breaks to get fresh air.

If you’re on a boat or a ferry, try to position yourself as centrally as possible. In choppy conditions, both the front and the back are likely to be moving up and down more.

If you imagine that a boat on rough seas is rocking like a see-saw in a children’s playground. It makes sense that the middle of the vessel is where movement is kept to a minimum.

On a flight, you may find that air sickness is less serious if you’ve got a window seat – so try to book one in advance.

Alternatively, you may prefer to take an aisle seat if you think you might need to visit the bathroom on a frequent basis.

What you eat before you travel can also have a bearing on how likely you are to suffer from motion sickness. Try to avoid greasy, spicy or overly acidic food if possible, and don’t drink alcohol.

Below, we look at some of the potential remedies or preventative measures you can take, from travel sickness tablets to travel sickness bands or sea bands.


Travel sickness tablets

Travel sickness or motion sickness tablets are one of the most common ways of combatting the feelings of nausea associated with travelling.

These tablets are available from the chemist or from supermarkets, and are most commonly marketed at children.

They should be taken as directed, usually before the start of a journey.

Motion sickness tablets are usually designed to dissolve in the taker’s mouth – this is important because many children struggle to swallow whole tablets.


Sea Bands 

Sea bands are simply light fabric wrist bands that contain a plastic disc.

The idea is that this disc acts as an acupressure point, which in theory can help to relieve nausea. 

Despite the name, Sea Bands are intended to work against all types of motion sickness – not just travel by boat. 

Check prices for travel sickness bands on Amazon



Travel sickness patches 

These take the same approach as the nicotine patches which are used by people who are trying to give up smoking.

You place motion sickness patches either below your belly button or on the back of your ear.

The mechanism used by motion sickness patches involves expanding the blood vessels located on the skin around the vagus nerve.

This nerve connects the gastrointestinal tract to the brain. The patch is designed to improve the body’s circulation, increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to the brain.

In theory, they help to prevent the nausea that is associated with motion sickness.


Ginger for travel sickness

Ginger has long been recognised for its ability to soothe the gut and reduce feelings of nausea.

For this reason, many people eat ginger biscuits or preserved stem ginger before they travel in order to ward off motion sickness.

Alternatively, you can take ginger supplements – made up of concentrated ground ginger – in your efforts to avoid travel sickness.

Check prices for ginger tablets on Amazon



Travel sickness in dogs

It’s not just people who can suffer from motion sickness.

It can also afflict our pets, especially dogs. Just as children are more likely to be affected by travel sickness, it’s younger dogs and puppies which tend to have worse motion sickness symptoms.

This is usually because the part of a puppy’s inner ear which is supposed to deal with balance hasn’t fully developed yet. The good news is that this is probably something they will grow out of fairly quickly.

In the meantime, however, how can you tell if your dog is suffering from travel sickness? There are a few tell-tale signs to look out for:

• Is your dog struggling to settle in the car? This could suggest they are not feeling well.

• Is the dog drooling more than normal? This could be a sign that they’re producing excess gastric juices, suggesting they are feeling nauseous.

• Is the dog panting a lot? Again, this might be because they are feeling unwell, especially if they haven’t just been exercising.

Our guide on Keeping your dog safe in the car can give you more tips on travelling with pets safely.


Dog travel sickness remedies

The best approach to helping your dog deal with motion sickness is similar to the strategies suggested for people.


Keeping your dog comfortable on car journeys

Encourage your dog to face forwards if possible. Ideally you want them looking at the horizon through the front window rather than focusing on the outside world rushing past through a side window.

A harness might help you to achieve this.

If you have dog that is susceptible to motion sickness, put down a towel or blanket to protect your car’s interior in the case of vomiting.

Avoid travelling too fast, especially on twisty roads, and take the opportunity to stop and have a break on a regular basis.


Dog travel sickness tablets

There are also travel sickness remedies aimed specifically at our four-legged friends, most notably motion sickness tablets. In most cases, these need to be prescribed by a vet.