The Independent Pharmacy

What is Travel Sickness? Common Symptoms and Causes

Scott McDougall
Scott McDougallMPharmDirector & Registered Manager

Reviewed on 11 Aug 2022

For some people, the thought of travelling long distances in a car or by plane can be extremely stressful due to motion sickness. Motion sickness (also referred to as travel sickness) is caused by repeated movements, as well as a sensory conflict in which the brain is unable to combine mixed signals.

So, how can you improve your travel experience and prevent motion sickness? This guide will go over the most common causes, symptoms and treatments for motion sickness.

What is motion sickness?

Motion sickness is triggered by movement. It can affect people while travelling, but also occur as visually induced motion sickness for some sufferers. When there is an imbalance between what you see and what you feel, such as sitting still in a car while seeing the outside speeding past you, this imbalance disturbs the inner ear and this is what causes you to feel ill.

Common causes of motion sickness include:

  • Repetitive motion such as bumps while driving
  • Reading, playing games or watching films while in motion
  • Amusement rides such as roller coasters
  • Riding in a boat, car, bus, train or plane

Motion sickness can take you by surprise. You may feel fine one moment and then suddenly develop motion sickness symptoms.

Is travel sickness the same as altitude sickness?

While there are some similarities between altitude sickness and motion sickness, they are not the same illness. Motion sickness is caused by mixed signals, whereas altitude sickness occurs when there is a lack of oxygen in the air. However, you may experience similar symptoms including nausea and headaches.

Read more about altitude sickness in our helpful Common Altitude Sickness Treatments & Remedies guide.

Can motion sickness be caused by anxiety?

Anxiety is a stress response that can result in a variety of psychological and physical symptoms. When you are overly anxious — if you are worried about flying, for example — you may notice that your heart rate and breathing rate increase. Other symptoms may include nausea, sickness or a cold sweat.

Motion sickness and anxiety-related sickness do share similar traits, but travel sickness is caused by a disturbance of the inner ear, whereas anxiety is a result of stress. It’s important to find the root cause of your sickness in order to find the best treatment available.

What are the common symptoms of travel sickness?

Motion sickness can happen as a result of certain types of movement. For some people who are extremely sensitive to certain motions, it may take very little for them to become ill, whereas others may only get motion sickness occasionally.

Common symptoms of motion sickness include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Loss of appetite

Once you understand your symptoms and triggers, it’s easier to prevent motion sickness or find a treatment that minimises your symptoms.

Who experiences motion sickness?

Almost everyone will experience motion sickness at some point; however, some groups are more susceptible to the condition.

You are more likely to get motions sickness if the following applies:

  • You are female
  • You have a family history of motion sickness
  • You are on hormonal birth control
  • You are pregnant
  • You have an existing disorder of the inner ear

Also, children aged 2 to 12 are more likely to suffer from motion sickness. When motion sickness occurs in children, they often grow out of it. For adults, however, depending on the severity of your symptoms you may need to prepare each time you travel to avoid an upset stomach.

How do you stop travel sickness?

Motion sickness symptoms can be unpleasant to deal with, so you may need to find a treatment in order to ease motion sickness when travelling. Luckily, there are several options available that can be taken in the lead-up to situations that trigger motion sickness, such as car, bus or train travel.

  • Patches: Motion sickness patches such as Scopoderm Patches are simple and convenient to use. They are discreetly applied behind the ear before travel and can provide up to 72 hours of motion sickness relief. The patch works by releasing hyoscine, which is then absorbed by the skin and blocks the muscarinic (or cholinergic) receptors that cause nausea and vomiting due to sensory imbalances. Each patch contains 1.5mg hyoscine and is intended to be worn for three days.
  • Anti-sickness Tablets: Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of motion sickness. Medications such as Stugeron Tablets contain the active ingredient cinnarizine. This is an antihistamine that prevents nerve signals from reaching the vomiting centre of the brain. These signals are sent by the vestibular apparatus in the inner ear, and preventing them from reaching the brain suppresses motion sickness symptoms.
Stugeron 15mg Tablets
Stugeron 15mg Tablets
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How long does travel sickness last?

Motion sickness can last up to 4 hours after the motion has stopped, but in most cases your symptoms will slowly reduce in intensity during that period. You can also prevent the onset of motion sickness by taking nausea treatments or travel sickness treatments as soon as you start to feel unwell.

Alternative ways to treat motion sickness

Alongside anti-sickness medications, you can also relieve nausea and other symptoms in other ways, such as:

  • Reducing motion by sitting in the front of a car or in the middle of a boat.
  • Looking straight ahead at a fixed point to prevent nausea and dizziness.
  • Getting fresh air when possible.
  • Focusing on your breathing.
  • Drinking peppermint or chamomile tea to settle your stomach.
  • Focusing on the P6 pressure point by massaging the area or wearing pressure wristbands. The point is found three finger-widths away from the wrist, roughly in the middle of the forearm.

What is travellers’ diarrhoea?

Traveller's diarrhoea is a common condition around the world in which stools are passed frequently. This is usually caused by consuming food or drink that has been contaminated with bacteria, viruses or parasites — often experienced when travelling to new countries. The condition can be very unpleasant and can interfere with daily life, especially when travelling.

Though uncomfortable, the condition is not dangerous and usually resolves itself within a few days, especially when appropriate treatment is used. Anti-diarrhoea treatments such as Ciprofloxacin Tablets can reduce the duration of your upset stomach symptoms. They contain ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic which is effective at killing off bacterial infections.

How is motion sickness diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing sickness every time you travel in a car, plane or boat, then motion sickness is probably the cause. If your symptoms are severe or are becoming more frequent, it’s best to visit a healthcare professional such as your GP or pharmacist who can help diagnose your condition. They may also perform a physical exam and check your eyes and inner ears.

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