How to cope when motion sickness casts a cloud over family holidays
Most of us have occasionally suffered – or had to watch our children suffer – the dreaded curse that is travel sickness. And with the summer touring season now upon us, those three little words all parents dread – "I feel sick" – will rasp out in cars, planes and ferries the world over.
It’s not just children who suffer, although the prime years for travel sickness are from two to 12, with many later outgrowing the problem. But it’s an unpredictable phenomenon and – without warning – those switchback bends that looked so enticing to the driver can suddenly exert their toll, triggering overwhelming waves in the pit of the stomach. You’d rather be anywhere else but here, holiday or no holiday.
Motion sickness is believed to affect 20?million Britons, with symptoms including dizziness, nausea and vomiting. For some, the very thought of it can cast a cloud – as potent as that produced by any Icelandic volcano – over an entire holiday. But, says Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, a GP from Cambridge and medical director of a travel clinic, it needn’t be this way.
She says that motion sickness begins when conflicting signals are sent to the brain from the eyes and from the inner ear. “If the driver throws the car around, tiny particles of chalk suspended in liquid in your inner ear push against microscopic hairs,” says Dr Wilson-Howarth. “This tells your brain that you are on your side. Meanwhile, your eyes are sending different information and it’s this that makes you sick.”
Dr Wilson-Howarth – who travelled extensively with her two young children when she lived in Nepal – says that where children are concerned, “distractability” is key.
“Motion sickness is quite suggestible,” she says. “If someone thinks they are going to be sick, they may well be. Take children’s minds off it by getting them to play games, listen to music and look out of the window at the horizon. Looking down to read can be a problem because your field of view moves around more.”
If this fails and the dreaded symptoms begin, shutting your eyes or lying down might help. And keep listening to that soothing music.
Planning ahead is important. “Light meals are best – don’t have a big plate of fish and chips before a journey as it will slop around your stomach,” says Dr Wilson-Howarth. “Creamy chocolate drinks or fizzy ones are bad – light drinks like apple juice are good.”
If nature takes its course and someone is sick, it’s best to top them up with light snacks such as dry biscuits, especially ginger ones, which help fight nausea.
“If you vomit, you do not want to be dry-heaving,” advises Dr Wilson-Howarth. Keep hydrated with water.
If the practical approach fails, though, it’s time to visit the chemist, and there are three types of treatment (including two classes of anti-nausea drug) that are believed to help with those conflicting brain signals.
“Antihistamines are good if you know you’re going to be sick, but most people dose too late,” says Dr Wilson-Howarth. “Take them the night before and on the morning of the journey and then eight-hourly. If you begin to take them when you feel ill, it could be too late as they may not be absorbed properly.” They should not make you drowsy but might – everyone is affected differently.
Those unsure whether they will feel sick should pack hyoscine tablets such as Kwells. They begin to work in 15 minutes and can be taken when you start to feel ill. Side-effects can include blurred vision, drowsiness and a dry mouth. Hyoscine patches, effective for 72 hours, are available too but should be applied before the journey. Read packet instructions before taking any medicine and if concerned about which treatments might cause drowsiness, ask your chemist.
Also consider “sea bands”, said to massage pressure points on your wrist. “They may work, especially if you believe they work,” says Dr Wilson-Howarth.
But what about your car? Different cars affect different people so there’s no such thing as an “ideal” vehicle. However, those with elevated “stadium” rear seats and big windows help, because small children can see out more easily. Examples include the Peugeot 3008, the Citroën C3 Picasso and other MPV-style vehicles. Experts also recommend that motorists should drive as smoothly as possible, if they have sickness-prone passengers.
And that old wives’ tale – sitting on a sheet of brown paper? “No evidence for that at all,” says Dr Wilson-Howarth. “But again, it’s suggestibility. In Nepal I saw all kinds of ceremonies for medical reasons. Sometimes, if you believe, that’s all it takes.”
See Bugs, bites and bowels: the essential guide to travel health, by Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth. Cadogan, £8.99
How one sufferer finally found a cure for travel sickness
I suffered acute travel sickness from a very young age, until I reached my mid-twenties. Cars, trains, ferries and, particularly, planes all made me not just nauseous, but actually vomit.
My mother took me to our sympathetic GP on numerous occasions when I was young, begging him for some relief both for me and her; as a travel writer, she often had the chance to take me to far-flung destinations such as Africa or the Middle East, but whereas a trip to Disney World in Florida would have had most children dancing in the street, I just winced at the prospect of a long-haul flight.
On one trip to Kenya, we had to postpone the rest of our holiday upon landing, after I was wheeled off the plane, dehydrated and exhausted from being sick for so long. We had to stay in Nairobi for 48 hours while I sipped rehydration drinks. In a diary of a holiday in America that we took when I was nine, next to the crudely drawn picture of a plane, I had scrawled in pink crayon, with evident pride: “29 sick bags filled!!!!”
I tried wrist bands that target pressure points thought to relieve nausea, anti-sickness pills that I had to let dissolve under my tongue, and even Valium for flights, which succeeded in knocking me out but couldn’t be timed to last a whole flight.
One doctor finally suggested hypnotherapy as my last port of call, as so much of the problem seemed to be what the GP termed “learned behaviour” – after so many years of travel sickness, my brain only had to see a ferry or plane and I would start feeling sick.
I wasn’t keen on hypnotherapy, and struggled through another few years of mortifying embarrassment – what is unpleasant for a child is utterly degrading for an adult.
The solution came, out of the blue, when I first got a job as a motoring journalist (the one time I’ve never felt sick is, as for most sufferers, driving). I was thrilled, until I learned how much international travel was involved for car launches. I contemplated resigning, knowing it was beyond me to fly for work, but took one last desperate trip to Boots, to see if there were any new over-the-counter medicines I hadn’t tried. I took home a new brand of travel sickness pill, which contains cinnarizine as an active ingredient – an antihistamine. These are commonly taken by hay fever sufferers, and are known to help those suffering from travel sickness and vertigo sometimes, and I’ll swear I’ve tried them in various travel sickness pills before, because I remember the drowsiness they brought on.
Maybe it was the cinnarizine, maybe it was simply my time to grow out of travel sickness, aged 26. I’ll never know, and I don’t really care; all I know is that they worked the first time I took them: I sat on a flight to Dubai for a Volvo launch, face scrunched up, awaiting the worst… and it simply didn’t happen. I seem to recall I even had something to eat, unthinkable until then.
Now my biggest worry is that my son will suffer as I did, and long-distance travel will be anticipated with despair by the whole family.
As my case shows, however, if you or your child is a sufferer, the cure may not be obvious, and it may be a long time coming, but keep trying everything on offer, and keep your fingers crossed.