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Conquering Travel Sickness – Causes, Symptoms, Prevention and Treatment

While some people most closely associate travel sickness with long car rides, it can actually occur during any form of travel. It's not a new concept either, the Ancient Greeks knew all about it and NASA has been devising ways to try to combat travel sickness in space since the first programs began back in the 1960s.

While it's not what could be considered a serious ailment in most cases, and it's not in any way infectious, travel sickness can make getting from A to B pretty miserable, both for those suffering from travel sickness and those traveling with them.

What is Travel Sickness?

The term travel sickness is a catchall that covers a range of symptoms and it occurs because certain modes of travel confuse the senses - and the brain - and causes a disturbance in balance that can be quite disconcerting (and nauseating).

The problem is that usually the brain, which is 'in charge' of constantly updating the body about where it is and how it is moving, can, under certain circumstances when travelling, begin to receive confusing signals from the two sources it relies upon for information; the eyes and the collection of fluids, tubes and nerves in the inner ear known as the vestibular system.

Here's a practical example. 

You are a rear seat passenger in a car. The car is moving - and twisting and turning - which is something your body can sense and the fluids in the ear transmit that information to the brain. However, if you are looking at the seat in front of you the movement isn't apparent at all and so your eyes do not register it properly and fail to send any movement signals in the way they would if you were outside walking. These mixed signals to the brain can really confuse it and the result can often be travel sickness.

What Are The Symptoms of Travel Sickness?

Extreme nausea - with or without actual vomiting - is the primary symptom of motion sickness, but there are others. These can include dizziness, excessive saliva production, cold sweats, headaches and sometimes drowsiness as well.

It is kids that are usually most affected by travel sickness, usually those aged between 2 and 12.

Many children who are prone to travel sickness outgrow it by their teenage years and are rarely bothered by it again. In adults, it is a rarer occurrence and most prevalent in women - especially pregnant women and those who have a history of migraines - when it does occur.

What Can Make Travel Sickness Worse?

In addition to the fact that some are simply more prone to travel sickness than others there are some outside factors that can make it worse. Reading or playing video games can be a problem as can poor ventilation, strong odors, inadequate hydration and even anxiety.

Preventing Travel Sickness

Although there are a few 'remedies' for travel sickness - more about those in a moment - it is often easier to try to prevent travel sickness from occurring in the first place than actually effectively treating it while on the move. While in some, often those who are genetically predisposed to motion sickness, these measures won't always help, here are some tips and tactics you can try to prevent it and therefore enjoy a better trip.

Keep the Air Fresh

If you are travelling in a car, try to keep the air as fresh as possible. In the summer this is easier to achieve as you can keep the air conditioning on to keep things cool and clean, or at least open the windows. During the colder months, try to keep the heat as low as possible, as excessive heat can dry out the air and make travel sickness symptoms worse.

If you are on public transportation, or in another environment where you do not have control over the climate, try to sit as close to a window as possible, to at least get a little air, away from crowded areas and resist the temptation, if possible, to stare out at the landscape passing by as doing so will only send even more confusing, and possibly nauseating, signals to your brain.

Concentrate on a Fixed Point and Don't Read!

Try focusing your attention on a fixed point - a stable object within the car for example - as that will help calm the confusing signals being sent to your brain.

What anyone prone to travel sickness should not do is try to distract themselves by reading or playing video games. Closing your eyes and listening to music can help, although it may be hard for parents to get younger children to do that.

Don't Eat Too Much

Although it is not a good idea to try to 'starve away' motion sickness, especially in a child, eating a large meal before travelling should be avoided. A light snack before heading off is not a problem for some who are prone to travel related nausea though, and something like plain crackers or toast is often well tolerated.

Try to Stay Calm and Rest

Adults can make a conscious effort to remain as relaxed and calm as possible and perhaps even take a nap to help keep the symptoms of travel sickness at bay. It is admittedly harder to get kids, especially younger ones, to do that but if parents at least make the effort it really can help their child from getting too sick and make the journey a better experience for everyone.

Treatments for Travel Sickness

As previously mentioned, even with the best preparation in the world, sometimes you will need to try and treat travel sickness.

Over the Counter Medications

The number of traditional medications available in the US to treat travel sickness is limited. In Europe, and other countries, there are more specific medications available but they are not currently approved for use by the FDA.

While there are over the counter medications available in the US that can be effective in preventing travel sickness, in kids they do have to be administered with caution. Benadryl, although it is primarily an allergy medicine, can be helpful in preventing travel sickness but the exact dosage to give to a child should always be confirmed with their pediatrician before doing so.

Adults prone to travel sickness can try taking almost any over the counter antihistamine, but it is often best to take one that you know you tolerate well, as dealing with a bad reaction to a medication while travelling can be worse than the travel sickness you were trying to prevent in the first place.

Adults may also be able to make use of a travel sickness patch known by the brand name Transderm-Scop Patch (for which the generic name is Scopolamine Base). This is a patch that is worn behind the ear, and can be worn for up to three days, that is not only given to those who suffer from motion sickness but also to postoperative patients to prevent pain and medication related nausea.

The medication is thought to work by blocking the production of two natural substances -  acetylcholine and norepinephrine - that seem to worsen motion sickness and also by blocking some of the confusing signals sent to the brain that are the biggest root cause of the problem.

While some people do find this medication very effective, unfortunately it is not recommended for children under the age of 12 or for pregnant women - two of the largest populations of travel sickness sufferers - so they will need to look elsewhere for relief. The medication can also have some unpleasant side effects in healthy adults - including nausea! So the decision to make use of it is one that should be carefully considered.

Alternative Remedies

There are more treatment options available for motion sickness if you venture into the realm of alternative - or 'home' - remedies. Many people find that ginger can be very good for calming a queasy tummy - in the form of ginger ale is fine - and sucking on a hard candy can be helpful as well.

In recent years, travel sickness bands have become very popular. These bands are worn on the wrist and, when fastened, exert a light pressure on the P6 or Neu Kan acupuncture point via raised studs, usually made of plastic.

The most popular brand of motion sickness prevention band - Sea-Band - can be found in most pharmacies or be bought online, but if style is something important to you there are even 'fashion options' available and even high tech electronic versions that have adjustable pressure levels, although you can expect to pay in excess of $150 for one of those! A pharmacy technician can help advise you on the best aid if you're pregnant, or is used by children or even pets.

A limited number of studies have found these bands to be effective in preventing several types of nausea, including travel sickness, morning sickness and even nausea after chemotherapy. Other studies have had contradictory findings, but as they are medication free and relatively easy to obtain and, in their most basic form, inexpensive, as well as safe for use for children of all ages, they may be worth at least giving a try.

For those who have to travel a lot - and this is can be very common for grown ups whose job requires it - trying out biofeedback therapy can be a longer term solution for some.

Biofeedback feedback therapy involves retraining the brain and teaching it to control its responses to outside stimuli, including the confused responses to motion that cause travel sickness. It's a therapy that is used successfully by the US Air Force to help pilots overcome motion sickness - as well as by NASA - and is another relatively risk free, non-medication solution that may be at least looking into.

A Final Note

As we mentioned, the good news is that many who suffer from travel sickness only do so as a child, and it often disappears once they hit puberty. Even if it does not however, education and prevention can go a long way towards minimizing its effects and maybe even combating it altogether.

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