Not So Steady As It Goes

Whether on planes, trains, automobiles or boats, motion sickness can turn the dreamiest of escapes into a bloody nightmare

By Fina Scroppo

My husband, Mike, and I enjoy travelling. But before I can book a destination and plan an itinerary, there are a few things I need to remember, for my husband’s sake. I must be careful to avoid small (bumpy) plane rides and most boating activities (yes, cruise ships are out!) and arrange that he be the driver if we’re exploring terrain with a vehicle, or, at the very least that he sit in the front seat.

Basically, anything that can trigger his motion sickness is off limits.

Like the Greek seamen who were the first to record the relationship of movement on ships and illness, Mike got his first serious bout while deep-sea fishing off the shores of fort Lauderdale, Florida. For three hours he was stuck in the middle of the rough Atlantic Ocean trying to deal with his symptoms—namely dizziness, pallor, sweating, nausea, and fatigue—before the boat could return to shore. The rest of his buddies, in the meantime, were having a great time bringing in their catches.

So why do some individuals suffer from motion sickness while others don’t?

Women are more likely than men to experience it, as are children, but beyond that, just who will and who won’t suffer isn’t clear. What doctors do know is that when a sufferer experiences motion sickness there is a conflict between what the body senses (via the inner ear, muscles and joints) and what the eye perceives. That mix-up is most often experienced on an airplane or amusement park ride, or in a boat or car.

Doctors at the University of Maryland’s Medical Center explain it to consumers on their website (umm.edu) like this: “From inside a ship’s cabin, the inner ear may sense rolling motions that the eyes cannot see, and, conversely, the eyes may see movement on a ‘virtual reality’ simulation ride that the body does not feel.”

Other factors can bring on or exacerbate the condition, including anxiety, poor ventilation or obnoxious fumes, long and rough rides, and headaches/migraines.

But hold on: there’s good news. Even on a ship—where there are few places to go to avoid the rocking motion—the body can adjust. “Over time, there is a tendency to adapt (‘to get one’s sea legs’),” states the Public Health Agency of Canada in a study about the ailment. “For most individuals this occurs by two to three days, although about five percent are said not to adapt and to remain symptomatic if the stimulus persists. returning to stable circumstances, as in returning to shore, can trigger an exacerbation, but this is usually shorter because readaptation is quicker.” If symptoms don’t subside within days after the end of a trip, see your doctor toensure you don’t have another condition, such as an inner ear problem or virus.

The good news for the predisposed traveller is that symptoms (dizziness, nausea, vomiting, cold sweats, malaise) typically wane as soon as the motion stops—small comfort for the duration you are afloat. While you are riding out the sickness, sit or lie in a spot where there’s minimal movement (the front seat of the car, the middle of the plane). And take heart: the more you travel, the more easily you’ll adjust to motion.

Plan ahead to prevent motion sickness. Here are some effective methods:

  • In a car, drive or sit in the front seat
  • On an airplane, book a window seat over the wings
  • On a ship, reserve a cabin in the middle of the ship, near the waterline or on the upper deck
  • On a train, sit next to a window, facing forward
  • Keep your head still, for example, on a headrest
  • Avoid reading while travelling; look outside a window or focus on a horizon
  • Don’t smoke or avoid smoke 
  • Do some deep breathing
  • Avoid a big meal before travelling. Stay away from spicy or greasy foods.
  • If you become ill, eat salty crackers and a clear, carbonated beverage to settle your stomach.
  • Sit in a well-ventilated area; move away from an area with strong odours.
  • Consider a scopolamine patch, which is placed on the skin behind the ear, effective in preventing nausea and vomiting for 72 hours. Talk to your doctor if you have an existing medical condition.
  • Ask your doctor about prescription and over-the-counter medication, such as antihistamines or sedatives, to prevent and minimize symptoms. Planning to scuba dive or ride a dirt bike? Be cautious: some medications can cause drowsiness and impair your judgment so consult your physician first.

Note: this is a guideline only.  Always get individual medical advice from a travel health doctor 

 


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