If you never suffer from car sickness, raise your eyes upwards and thank your lucky stars. Because for anyone prone to the condition, it can be a wretched experience. With symptoms including nausea (obviously), vomiting, bloatedness, headaches, dizziness, cold sweats and more, car sickness can turn every journey into a why-was-I-born ordeal.
Virtually everyone will get motion sickness if the movements are extreme enough – for example, in an astronaut training programme – but around one-third of people are susceptible under more everyday conditions, such as in a car or on a bus.
What causes motion sickness?
With such a common and debilitating condition, you might expect that scientists had it all figured out years ago. Unfortunately, it turns out that motion sickness is pretty complex. Researchers are still unpicking all the different strands.
There’s plenty that we do know, however:
- One key cause of motion sickness is the mismatch between the information the brain receives from our different movement sensors. Take the situation in a moving car. With things flashing past the window, your eyes inform the brain that you’re on the move. However, the information from the inner ear, which regulates balance, is saying something different. That’s telling the brain that you’re stationary – which apart from a bit of fidgeting, you are. The problem is that we haven’t really evolved to cope with this discrepancy: in our evolutionary past, we were usually moving when we were running or walking. The brain doesn’t cope well with this odd situation and throws up (so to speak) a stress response.
- As if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s not just the inner ear and eyes that are sending conflicting reports. Other sensors get involved too, as your body tries to shift your balance and alter your posture to correct for what it thinks is happening.
- Controlling the motion plays a role. For example, not many people get car sickness when they’re driving.
- Some groups are more susceptible than others. Car sickness is much more common and women suffer more often than men. These point to possible developmental and hormonal factors in the condition.
Can the research give us any practical tips for helping your poorly passenger?
Definitely – and here are our top tips:
1. Plan your route. You can’t do much about your passengers’ developmental stage, sex, hormonal status or genetics, so some car sickness may be inevitable. However, choosing a passenger-friendly route can really help. For example, your idea of a good time might be hooning around the twisties, but the excess motion of the car will be a nightmare for your poorly passenger.
2. Don’t keep talking about car sickness. Psychological factors play a strong role in car sickness. Well-meaning enquiries about car sickness force your passenger to focus on their nauseous feelings instead of on something else. And of course, it’s probably best not to talk about your favourite greasy fry-up.
3. Smooth your driving style. As noted above, virtually everyone gets motion sick if the motion is extreme enough. So by the same logic, the less jerky you can make the car’s motion, the better. Avoiding rapid changes in direction (those twisties again!), accelerating and decelerating smoothly and generally driving like a laid-back dude can help considerably.
4. Minimise passenger duties. We’re all for division of labour in the car, but allocating tasks to a sickness-prone passenger may be a step too far. OK, so the curse of map-reading may have disappeared off the passenger’s duty list, but asking them to ring ahead, google a nearby cafe or anything else that involves looking up and down should be off the agenda. Looking at a tablet or mobile phone is one of the most common ways that sickness is triggered. So if you can’t do it yourself, hands-free, maybe it should wait.
5. If possible, let your passenger drive. We know that passengers get a squintillion times sicker than drivers, so one simple solution is to share out the driving. Yes, this may involve dialling down your inner control-freak, but other than stopping at home, it’s the single most sure-fire way of reducing carsickness. The obvious shortcoming is that it won’t work for children.
6. Open the windows. For some reason, fresh air often seems to help with car sickness – which is a strange thing, because it doesn’t help that much with sea-sickness. So suck it up, wear a scarf, and crack open the windows.
7. Sit in the front seat. No surprises here. According to a survey by the RAC, three-quarters of people find the rear seats are worse for car sickness. Only one in eight said the same thing about the front seats.
8. Fixate on the horizon. Again everyone knows this one. Focusing on the horizon helps prevent nausea from developing. This may be because the horizon is moving less than closer objects, so there’s less conflict between bodily signals (which say that you’re stationary) and visual signals (which say that you’re moving).
9. Eat a light protein meal before travelling. It might seem common sense that it’s better to travel on an empty stomach, but there’s some evidence that a small protein-rich meal can alleviate travel sickness. Protein slows digestion, reducing activity in the stomach.
10. Consider medication. Anti-travel sickness tablets don’t suit everyone and can have unwanted side-effects, such as drowsiness. But for a proportion of people, they can really help. The anti-histamine drug dramamine is often recommended and is available over the counter.
11. Listen to some favourite music. The idea that just putting on your playlist might help might seem wildly optimistic, but some research has concluded that music may help. Listening to music reduces subjective feelings of nausea and bodily stress responses. The reasons aren’t clear, but it may be as simple as music providing a distraction.
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