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Tried-and-True Ways to Beat Motion Sickness, According to Experts and Travelers

By Stacey McKenna

10.28.19

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Motion sickness can cause dizziness, nausea, and sweating.

Photo by istock; illustration by Taylor Le

Motion sickness can cause dizziness, nausea, and sweating.

Ginger? Acupressure bands? The patch? Figuring out which motion sickness remedy is best can be as overwhelming as the malady itself. Here, we break down four popular treatment options.

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There are times, like on road trips and cruise ships, when the process of moving from point A to point B is truly part of the adventure. But for many travelers—myself included—the simple act of being in transit can cause dizziness, sweating, nausea, and vomiting. That grouping of symptoms, more commonly known as motion sickness, is caused by a disturbance in the inner ear, the part of the body responsible for maintaining our sense of balance.

According to Vickie Sowards, RN, BSN, and director of nursing resources for Passport Health travel medicine clinics, whether you’re in a car, plane, ship, or train, the repetitive movements that are so common in travel disrupt one’s equilibrium by sending conflicting signals to the brain. “The eyes see one thing and the body feels another, and the inner ear does not know what is happening,” she says.

Although only about one-third of people are considered highly susceptible to motion sickness, almost anybody can experience it if things get shaky enough. As seriously intrepid expeditions—think polar cruises or space flight—become more accessible and climate change renders air turbulence more frequent and more violent, even individuals who aren’t usually vulnerable may find themselves lurching for the sick bag.

There are, however, some basic things you can do to reduce your chances of getting queasy when conditions are mild. To avoid the brain-body disconnect that causes motion sickness, Sowards recommends seeking out the place you’ll feel the least amount of movement or where you can find something still to look at. On a ship, book a cabin near its center, and when you’re above deck, look to the horizon. On a plane, choose a seat situated over the wing or in front. In a car, sit up front or take the wheel, and on a train, pick a seat that’s facing forward. In any scenario, stay hydrated, keep fresh air flowing, and avoid reading or looking down at your phone or tablet to minimize that disconnect.

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As movement increases, the basics aren’t always enough to keep your inner ear in balance and your stomach calm, so you may want to rely on natural or pharmaceutical options. But with so many choices, such as acupressure Sea Bands and transdermal Scopolamine patches, it’s hard to guess which actually work. A health researcher–turned–travel journalist who suffers from motion sickness, I’ve surveyed the research and talked to experts to help make sense of it all. Here’s what you need to know:

Acupressure

A few years ago, I was boarding a whale-watching boat off the Dominican Republic’s Samana Peninsula when the crew began passing out Sea Bands. These elasticized bracelets relieve nausea by exerting pressure on the pericardium 6 (aka P6 or Nei-Guan), an acupressure point that, according to traditional Chinese medicine, can help harmonize digestion.

However, clinical reports and research trials on the efficacy of acupressure bracelets for reducing nausea are mixed. Some studies have found they don’t work any better than a placebo, while others have found substantial and significant reductions in the symptoms of motion sickness.

Since that boat tour, Sea Bands have become my go-to for flights and long-haul road trips—at $13 per pair, they’re affordable enough to keep on hand (not to mention reusable)—but when the turbulence is sustained or when I’m on a bus switchbacking its way along the Mediterranean coast, I need something stronger.

Over-the-counter meds 

Several antihistamines—including dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and meclizine (Antivert, Bonine)—prevent motion sickness by blocking H1 receptors that can cause nausea. You can find pills and chewable tablets that last from 8 to 24 hours in most drugstores, gas stations, and even airport shops.

The efficacy of antihistamines in combating motion sickness is supported by research, and doctors have been recommending them for decades. I’ve been thankful for them in prolonged turbulence and on rough waters. But they can also make you incredibly sleepy, which can be annoying on scenic train rides or Zodiac boat excursions and downright dangerous if you need to drive.

Prescription med

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Another well-studied pharmaceutical solution is the scopolamine medicine-based patch, Transderm Scop. A growing body of research suggests that scopolamine works to block acetylcholine receptors, thus reducing the “neural mismatch signal” and making it easier for the brain to reorient. Simply place the patch behind an ear an hour or two before your trip, where it can remain and continue to work for a few days.

These patches are popular because there’s no pill to remember to take, they work as well as or better than over-the-counter alternatives, and they don’t really cause drowsiness. However, Sowards notes, these prescription-only patches can cause “excessively dry mouth,” so you’ll want to keep water handy.

Ginger

People have been consuming ginger medicinally for millennia. The root is favored by Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine practitioners to treat gastrointestinal ailments, and it has been a popular stomachache remedy in other cultures, too. More recently, all those years of healing-based wisdom have been backed by clinical trials.

A natural antiemetic, ginger works by inhibiting serotonin receptors and breaking up and expelling gas in the digestive tract. It’s been shown to outperform Dramamine medicine as a remedy for motion sickness in a number of studies and does so without marked side effects.

Beyond ginger ale—that old standard (though make sure the drink contains actual ginger; some do not)—you can find ginger lozenges, chews, and even gum in drug stores. And the makers of Bonine and Dramamine both have natural, ginger-based versions of their products that claim to include a clinical dose of the herb.

Ultimately, Sowards says, “There is no one thing that works for everyone” so it’s worth exploring multiple options. Don’t like pharmaceuticals? Try the ginger or Sea Bands. Not a fan of popping pills? Consider the Transderm Scop. Want something that’ll knock you out on that 10-hour flight? Over-the-counter antihistamines are your best friend. Whatever you choose, remember it’ll work best if you take it or put it on one to two hours before the start of your journey.

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