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Avoiding Nausea on Road Trips

Published on Nov 21, 2023 | 12:10 PM

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Whether for a trip at any time of the year or for the upcoming holidays, getting sick on the road makes it much harder to have fun. Mostly affecting children between ages two to twelve and adult women, it's estimated that one in three people get motion sickness when traveling. (1) Depending on multiple factors, getting carsick on a long drive can make the trip far more difficult to get through, which is why it's important to understand why it happens and how to avoid it

What causes motion sickness? 

Just like food poisoning is a direct response to contaminated or old food, getting motion sickness in cars, planes, and boats is a natural occurrence that can happen to anyone. Motion sickness from air, sea, and car travel is caused by a conflict between the visual information perceived by your eyes and the spatial orientation sensed by your inner ear. (2) Here's how motion sickness is triggered: 

Visual Input: Your eyes send signals to the brain about what you see. For example, when you're in a car, your eyes may perceive the interior of the vehicle, which appears stationary.

Vestibular System Input: The inner ear, specifically the vestibular system, detects motion and changes in head position. In a moving car, this system senses acceleration, deceleration, and changes in direction.

Conflict Between Inputs: When you're in a moving vehicle, your eyes may tell your brain that you're sitting still, but your inner ear senses the motion. This mismatch of information creates confusion for the brain.

Brain’s Interpretation: The brain interprets this sensory conflict as a potential toxin or poisoning, as it might result from ingesting something harmful or different that causes a similar discrepancy between visual and vestibular inputs. 

Brain's Response: In response, the brain triggers a series of responses aimed at eliminating the perceived toxin. These responses can include: 

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Hypersalivation
  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting 
  • Sweating

Symptoms can vary from person to person, but in general according to studies, here are common trends for motion sickness by demographic data:

  • Infants and Toddlers: Infants and toddlers have shown far less susceptibility to motion sickness, often being considered immune to the condition. (3) When it comes to those susceptible to motion sickness, it is typically in combination with conditions like migraines, ear infections, and vestibular dysfunction. (4)
  • Children aged 2-12 years: Considered the ages most susceptible to motion sickness, it's suspected that children in this age group are prone to sensory conflicts due to their bodies still developing. (6) Susceptibility to motion sickness typically falls after the age of nine, with the decline continuing as a person ages into adulthood. 
  • Women: Generally more susceptible than men, but less susceptible than children, women are normally not prone to motion sickness. However, events of high hormone shifts like pregnancy, menstruation, the use of birth control, and hormone replacement therapy are known to increase the likelihood of motion sickness. (3)(6)
  • Men: Men are much less likely to develop motion sickness through each mode of travel, with those developing it being affected by factors like lack of sleep, food consumed before or during the drive, and the conditions of travel. (2)
  • Adults over 50: Those over 50 years of age who do not have a chronic condition are least likely to experience motion sickness. (2)

While the internal sensory conflict between visual input and signals from the vestibular system is a key factor in motion sickness, there are also external factors that can contribute to or exacerbate the sensation of motion sickness. These factors can include:

  • Reading or Screen Use: Engaging in activities like reading a book or staring at a screen (such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop) while in motion can contribute to motion sickness. The disconnect between the visual input and the motion sensed by the inner ear can be more pronounced when focusing on close-up tasks.
  • Temperature and Ventilation: Poor ventilation and stuffy or warm environments inside a vehicle can contribute to discomfort and increase the likelihood of nausea. Ensuring good airflow and a comfortable temperature may help alleviate symptoms.
  • Odors and Smells: Strong or unpleasant odors in the environment, such as those from food, air fresheners, or exhaust fumes, can trigger or worsen nausea. Maintaining a well-ventilated space and avoiding strong smells can be helpful.
  • Anxiety and Stress: Emotional factors, such as anxiety or stress related to the journey, the mode of transportation, or other factors, can contribute to motion sickness. Anxiety can heighten the body's response to the sensory conflict, making symptoms more pronounced.
  • Fatigue: Being tired or fatigued can make an individual more susceptible to motion sickness. Lack of sleep and exhaustion can weaken the body's ability to cope with the sensory mismatch.
  • Travel Sickness Triggers: Certain triggers associated with travel, such as the sight of moving water or a winding road, can contribute to motion sickness. Anticipation of these triggers can heighten the sensitivity to motion and increase the likelihood of symptoms.
  • Position in the Vehicle: The position within a moving vehicle can influence the severity of motion sickness. Sitting in the backseat, especially if facing backward, may increase the sensation of motion and contribute to nausea.
  • Dietary Factors: Consuming heavy, greasy, or spicy meals before travel can contribute to motion sickness. It's advisable to opt for light, easily digestible snacks instead.

What can I take for nausea while driving?

Especially during the holidays, people travel several miles to join their families in celebrating days like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and more. For 2023, it's estimated that over 55 million Americans will travel over 50 miles to see family for Thanksgiving. (8) Whether for themselves or their children, preemptive treatment for car sickness or general motion sickness is one of the best ways to enjoy the journey during the holidays. Call-On-Doc offers a number of options for those needing prescriptions all year round, with our most common options include: 

  • Transdermal Scopolamine: Transdermal scopolamine is a medication for motion sickness administered through a patch placed on the skin. The patch slowly releases scopolamine, a medication derived from the belladonna plant, which acts on the central nervous system to reduce the symptoms of nausea and vomiting associated with motion sickness. The medication primarily works by blocking signals between the inner ear and the brain, helping to prevent motion-induced queasiness and discomfort. (9)
  • Meclizine: Meclizine is an antihistamine medication used to treat motion sickness. It functions by blocking histamine receptors in the brain, particularly in the vomiting center, reducing the signals that trigger nausea and vomiting. Meclizine's antiemetic and anti-nausea properties make it effective in alleviating symptoms associated with motion sickness, providing relief for individuals during travel. (10)
  • Dimenhydrinate: Dimenhydrinate is an antihistamine medication commonly used to treat motion sickness. It works by blocking histamine receptors in the brain and inner ear, helping to alleviate symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and dizziness associated with motion sickness. Additionally, it has a mild sedative effect, contributing to its effectiveness in reducing motion-related discomfort during travel. (11)

Those with children should especially consider keeping pediatric services on hand when taking a trip or holiday that involves driving long distances. Not only do we offer motion sickness treatment, but CallonDoc also makes sure you can get prescriptions for your child throughout the United States 7 days a week (including holidays). 

What are some distractions for nausea? 

Distractions can be effective in managing and alleviating feelings of nausea. Here are some distractions that may help take your mind off nausea:

  • Deep Breathing: Practice slow, deep breathing to help calm your nervous system and reduce nausea.
  • Listen to Music: Engage in calming or distracting music to shift your focus away from nausea.
  • Visual Distractions: Look out at the horizon or focus on a distant, stable object to provide visual stability and alleviate motion-related nausea.
  • Aromatherapy: Inhale a soothing scent, such as peppermint or lavender, which may help alleviate nausea.
  • Chew Gum or Sip Water: Chewing gum or sipping water can help keep the mouth moist and distract from feelings of nausea.
  • Engaging Conversations: Engage in conversations with travel companions or friends to divert your attention.
  • Cold Compress: Apply a cold compress to the forehead or back of the neck to provide a refreshing sensation and distract from nausea.
  • Avoid Books, Opt for Audio Books: Reading a physical book or one that’s on your phone is one of the most common causes of motion sickness. Audiobooks and podcasts provide the best alternatives for those looking to get in some reading on the go. 
  • Breathing Exercises: Practice diaphragmatic breathing exercises to regulate your breath and reduce nausea.
  • Positive Visualization: Visualize a calm and serene place, focusing on positive and relaxing imagery.
  • Play Games: Play simple, non-motion-intensive games on your phone or device to distract your mind.

What foods help with car sickness?

Eating before riding along on a long drive is a common factor behind motion sickness, especially if the food is greasy, fried, or spicy. We recommend opting for a smaller meal hours before having to hit the road. Similar to diets suggested for cases of nausea and vomiting, foods that fill the stomach while being less likely to trigger motion sickness include:  

  • Ginger: Ginger has anti-nausea properties and is known for its ability to soothe the stomach. Try ginger candies, ginger tea, or ginger ale.
  • Crackers or Bland Snacks: Plain crackers, pretzels, or other bland snacks can help absorb stomach acid and provide a simple, easy-to-digest option.
  • Bananas: Bananas are a good source of potassium and are gentle on the stomach. They can be a good choice for a light snack.
  • Applesauce: Applesauce is easy on the stomach and can provide a mild, non-acidic source of energy.
  • Mint: Peppermint or spearmint can have a calming effect on the stomach. Consider sucking on mint candies or sipping peppermint tea.
  • Plain Toast or Bread: Plain toast or bread can be easy on the stomach and help absorb excess stomach acid.
  • Water and Clear Liquids: Stay hydrated with water or clear liquids. Sipping water can help prevent dehydration, which may exacerbate feelings of nausea.
  • Plain Rice: Plain rice can be a gentle option for those experiencing stomach discomfort.
  • Fruit: Opt for light fruits like watermelon, cantaloupe, or honeydew, which have high water content and are easy to digest.
  • Scents: What smell helps with car sickness?

Aromatherapy is not only credited for helping reduce motion sickness symptoms but also those related to conditions like migraines. While aromatherapy is not something that works for everyone, the most common scents known for helping soothe those suffering from car sickness include: 

  • Peppermint: Peppermint has a calming effect on the stomach and can help reduce nausea. You can try inhaling the scent of peppermint essential oil or using peppermint-infused products.
  • Ginger: Ginger has anti-nausea properties and a soothing aroma. Consider using ginger essential oil or inhaling the scent of ginger candies or tea.
  • Lavender: Lavender is known for its calming properties. Inhaling the scent of lavender essential oil may help reduce stress and nausea.
  • Citrus: Citrus scents, such as lemon or orange, can be refreshing and may help alleviate feelings of queasiness.
  • Chamomile: Chamomile has a mild, soothing fragrance that may contribute to relaxation and help ease nausea.
  • Eucalyptus: Eucalyptus has a clean, invigorating scent. Inhaling eucalyptus essential oil may provide a sense of freshness.

How can I prevent car sickness naturally?

Due to it being considered a natural response to sensory conflicts, motion sickness prevention can sometimes be difficult. However, there are steps you can take to boost your chances of having an enjoyable ride, with the most common steps including: 

  • Focus on the Horizon: Look at the horizon or a fixed point in the distance to provide a stable visual reference and minimize sensory conflict.
  • Avoid Close-Up Tasks: Refrain from reading, using screens, or engaging in activities that require close-up focus. These activities can exacerbate the sensory mismatch.
  • Ventilation: Ensure good airflow in the car by opening windows or using air conditioning. Fresh air can help reduce feelings of nausea.
  • Stay Hydrated: Drink water regularly to stay hydrated, but avoid large amounts of liquids right before travel.
  • Choose Foods Wisely: Opt for light, easily digestible snacks before and during travel. Avoid heavy, greasy, or spicy foods.
  • Plan Breaks: Take breaks during long journeys to stretch your legs and get fresh air. Short breaks can help alleviate motion sickness.
  • Stay Relaxed: Practice relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing or meditation, to reduce stress and anxiety that may contribute to motion sickness.
  • Avoid Strong Smells: Limit exposure to strong and foul odors, as they can trigger or worsen feelings of nausea.
  • Positive Visualization: Visualize positive and calming scenes to shift your focus away from discomfort.
  • Drive or Sit in the Front: If you have control over the seating arrangements, driving or sitting in the front seat can provide a more stable visual perspective.
  • Prevent Overheating: Ensure a comfortable temperature inside the car to prevent overheating, which can contribute to discomfort.
  • Get Some Rest: It might seem like it is rude to avoid conversation during a long car ride, but sleeping gives your senses a break and is one of the best ways to avoid a sensory conflict. 

If you or a loved one struggles with motion sickness, consider planning ahead with a preventative prescription to make traveling more comfortable for everyone. Call-On-Doc is available for quick online prescriptions and can provide motion sickness treatment in two hours or less to any local pharmacy.

Source:

  1. “Motion Sickness: Symptoms & Treatment.” Cleveland Clinic, 18 January 2021, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/12782-motion-sickness.
  2. Tadese, Zelalem et al. “Factors Affecting Car Sickness of Passengers Traveled by Vehicles in North Shewa Zone, Oromia, Ethiopia.” Journal of Environmental and Public Health vol. 2022 6642603. 22 Feb. 2022, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8888106/
  3. Brown, Ashley. “Motion Sickness.” CDC, https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2024/air-land-sea/motion-sickness.
  4. Lipson S, Wang A, Corcoran M, Zhou G, Brodsky JR. Severe motion sickness in infants and children. Eur J Paediatr Neurol. 2020 Sep;28:176-179. doi: 10.1016/j.ejpn.2020.06.010. Epub 2020 Jul 10, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32682672/
  5. Lu, Stacy. “Adult-onset motion sickness rare -- but can happen.” NBC News, 5 April 2012, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/adult-onset-motion-sickness-rare-can-happen-flna662768.
  6. Takov, Veronica, and Prasanna Tadi. “Motion Sickness - StatPearls.” NCBI, 3 July 2023, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539706/.
  7. Fox, Alison. “This Is the Best Time to Hit the Road for Thanksgiving Travel, According to AAA.” Travel + Leisure, 14 November 2023, https://www.travelandleisure.com/thanksgiving-2023-traffic-best-worst-driving-times-aaa-8401488.
  8. “Scopolamine (Transdermal Route) Proper Use.” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/scopolamine-transdermal-route/proper-use/drg-20072848.
  9. “Meclizine (Oral Route) Precautions.” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/meclizine-oral-route/precautions/drg-20075849.
  10. “Dimenhydrinate.” MedlinePlus, 15 January 2022, https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a607046.html.

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Wayne C. Hahne,

English graduate and Call-On-Doc’s medical resource guide, Wayne C. Hahne is an experienced and passionate medical education content expert. Through diligent research, provider interviews and utilizing the industry's leading resources for wellness information, it is Mr. Hahne’s personal mission to educate the general public on medical conditions with in-depth and easy-to-understand written guides.

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