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How To Treat Motion Sickness When You Travel (and everything keeps moving)

Motion sickness is one of my worst nightmares when I travel.

Each time I go near a bus, a cart, a ferry or a train, I gulp air as though it's about to disappear. I suffer so badly I can't even be a passenger in a car - I usually have to drive.

Upside down roller coaster - motion sicknessThis should terrify me - but for some strange reason, possibly the speed, this is the one thing I can actually do without being ill - if it's speeding, even upside down, I can survive

Motion sickness tends to occur when the body is subjected to acceleration in different directions or when you lose visual contact with the horizon.

As a result, the part of the inner ear that controls balance is out of synch with the visual clues the brain receives.

Motion sickness has been around for a long time. Even the word 'nausea' comes from the Greek word naus, or ship.

Here's what it feels like: dizziness, fatigue, and nausea, which often leads to vomiting, at least in my case. It happens on sea, in the air, on land... you name it.

On a ferry crossing from Mombasa to Zanzibar once, the captain of the ferry took such pity on me he gave me pills from his private stash.

"These will knock you out," he promised. Half an hour later I was still standing, hugging a huge post and desperately trying to keep my eyes level with the rolling horizon. He couldn't believe it.

Three pills later, he gave up, admitting he'd never seen anything like it. "What I gave you should have felled an elephant," he said. Some elephant.

There is good news - and many ways to treat motion sickness, some of them relatively effective.

Buses in Guatemala - motion sicknessThese bus windows open, which makes things a bit bearable. In many parts of Africa, however hot and muggy, windows on the bus stay shut as people believe they might get ill from the air current... I love Africa but will go a long way to avoid taking a bus

First line of defence against motion sickness

If you have no medication or other aides, try breathing. Deep, slow breaths are essential to treat motion sickness. Keep your eye on the horizon as it can ease the discomfort.

An increasingly popular way to treat motion sickness is by applying acupressure, usual by placing a motion sickness wrist band on each wrist. These are now widely available and I of course have a pair, but my motion sickness is so bad I'd have to wear them all the way up my arm to feel the benefits. Science still hasn't confirmed they work, although there is evidence that continually rubbing or applying pressure to the area the wristbands stimulate - the inside of your wrist - does help reduce nausea. So on the basis of applying the precautionary principle, I'll continue using them. There's something called a ReliefBand that pilots use. I haven't tried this yet but it has an excellent reputation so it is next on my list.

Ginger is also used to treat motion sickness. I've tried sucking on candied ginger and it does help - but then, I'm a hopeless case. Others less susceptible than I am swear by it. You can also drink it in a tea, consume fresh sliced ginger root, drink ginger ale, apply oil to your temples or neck, or swallow powdered ginger pills.

Another natural remedy for motion sickness is peppermint tea, with herbal remedies ranging from carrot and apricot juice to parsley and unroasted seeds. There is little evidence that any of these work - but just knowing you're fighting back is already helpful.

Nutrition too can be used to treat motion sickness. Vitamin B6 (bananas, beans, nuts), choline (eggs, meat, oatmeal) and Coenzyme Q10 (nuts, fish, spinach) are all touted as helpful in controlling nausea. But again, none of this has been medically proven. I just believe that when desperate, every little bit helps.

A common way to treat motion sickness is by taking medicine for nausea, usually in the form of antiemetic or antihistamine drugs available over the counter. The medicines are quite effective, but some of them may make you quite drowsy. They tend to knock me out but then, that's the idea... While pills are useful for shorter trips, longer trips may require a patch that can be worn behind the ear. As with any medicine, talk to your doctor and read the label carefully - some of them have strong side effects.

For some reason women can be more susceptible than men to motion sickness in general, and in particular when they do a lot of aerobic exercise, use contraceptive pills or suffer from anxiety. The good news is that the older we get, the less susceptible to motion sickness we become. (I'm still waiting.)

By the time you treat motion sickness, you're already nauseous, so preventing it in the first place is highly desirable. 

First, to recap: Breathe. Try acupressure on your inside wrists. Take ginger or peppermint tea. You can try vitamins, or even drugs.

And then, a few other possibilities.

  • Avoid drinking alcohol or eating heavy food before boarding the bus or boat (if you don't, it may not stay down long). Snack instead.
  • Keep your eyes at rest. Don't read or look at a screen. This will help make you dizzy if you're already prone to. 
  • Some areas move less than others - like the front seat of the bus or the front of the plane.
  • Don't sit backward, with your back facing the direction of travel. Sit by the window and keep your eye on the horizon.
  • Avoid anything that might make you feel ill - bad smells, other sick people.
  • Don't move your head too much.
  • Hydrate yourself properly by drinking plenty of water.
  • And think positive!

Please note: I am NOT a medical professional of any kind, quite the contrary. What I describe here are my own personal symptoms and my own research online - you could do the research yourself and come up with exactly the same information.

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