What is car sickness and what causes it?

4 November 2016
 by 
, CarsGuide

Explaining car sickness to someone who doesn't suffer from it is like trying to teach Einstein's theory of relativity, or tax, to a toddler; sure, there might be the occasional flicker of recognition, but the message simply won't sink in.

And that's because motion sickness is so truly life-alteringly awful that unless you've found yourself desperately searching for a plastic bag to commence your wretched retching, it's impossible to fully grasp just how unpleasant it is.

Sadly, even those who've spent the majority of their lives without the urge to wind down a window and barf out of it may suffer in a different way one day, because when you have children the possibility that you'll be dealing with someone else's motion sickness is very real. And there aren't many things in life that are more difficult to deal with than a car-sick baby.

So, why do you get car sick? Because you lost the life lottery. For the lucky few, the worst thing they'll face on a long car trip is a suspicious service-station snack and a stereo stuck on the AM dial. But for the rest of us, motion sickness awaits to transport us from the passenger seat straight to the fiery depths of hell.

Kids aged between two and 12 are more prone to motion sickness than any other age group.

Not everyone suffers, nor does everyone get it in the same way. Some might only get sea sickness, while others are only sick on planes or in cars. Research suggests some 33 per cent of us are susceptible to motion sickness under "mild" circumstances (a slow-moving car, a boat on calm water, a plane in clear air), but that number jumps to 66 per cent if those circumstances are classed as "severe" ("we are about to experience severe turbulence").

Sorry kids, you're in for it

The most at risk, though, are children, with research from the Victorian Government claiming kids aged between two and 12 are more prone to motion sickness than any other age group, with studies finding car sickness in toddlers, infants and young children far more prevalent than in any adult group.

What causes car sickness

While there's no definitive answer to this, the majority of research points to what's referred to as unintentional movement. When you walk, for example, your body knows what you're trying to do, and prepares accordingly (as long as you haven't imbibed too much alcohol beforehand). But when you're travelling in a car, the movements come as something of a surprise to your body, and specifically to your inner ear, which sends frantic messages to your brain insisting that something is wrong and that the solution might include vomiting.

It's here, in the inner ear, where the problems start, be they mild symptoms (headaches, giddiness or tiredness) or severe reactions (nausea, sweating, shortness of breath, dizziness and endless technicolour yawning.)

What can you do about it

The easiest way to tackle car sickness is to insist on driving (don't try this if you're a toddler, the risks just aren't worth it). Weirdly, drivers rarely get sick (although it can happen in particular fast cars on really windy roads; trust us), even if that same person suffers from car sickness as a passenger.

A 2014 study from the Israeli Naval Hyperbaric Institute studied exactly this phenomenon, strapping some very brave, or stupid, people into what they called a "nauseogenic" rotating car. They even went so far as linking the participants' heads together to ensure they went through the exact same range of movements. The study gave one participant the ability to control the movement, and in almost every case, the person in control (known to the other participants as "that bastard") was less sick than the passenger.

If you can't drive, evidence suggests sitting in the front seat is better than in the back, but if neither is an option, there are some other popular methods, each offering varying degrees of success.

Pills and medicines

Travel-sickness tablets work by targeting your vestibular system, the part of your inner ear that provides the brain with information about how your body is moving. It's that information that, when it conflicts with what your brain thinks your body is doing, causes car sickness.

Car-sickness medicine blocks those signals, tricking your body into thinking you're motionless, even if you're sliding across the back seat of a fast-moving car.

While they're perfectly fine for the occasional boat or plane trip, nobody wants to be popping pills every time they get into a car.

(There's also a reasonable amount of placebo effect at work here, which means Vitamin C tablets might also work, if you really believed they were for motion sickness.)

Be warned, though, that most travel-sickness tablets can cause drowsiness, queasiness or a general sense of weirdness (all of which, to be fair, are considerably better than the alternative), and while they're perfectly fine for the occasional boat or plane trip, nobody wants to be popping pills every time they get into a car. 

Natural remedies

The most common of the natural remedies is ginger. Members of online forums maintain that chewing on raw ginger or ginger lollies can minimise the effects of motion sickness, or stop it arriving altogether.

Remember that what works for some won't work for others, so you might be best trying ginger on a short twisting road before you stuff your pockets with it and sign up for Targa Tasmania. I have suffered from motion sickness in the past, particularly on stormy seas - which can threaten to turn by body completely inside out - and I have learned from bitter experience that ginger makes exactly zero difference for me. I could eat Ron Weasley and still be horrifically sick within minutes.

Ginger is also a bitter pill to swallow if you hate the taste of ginger, obviously.

Bands and bracelets

Travel-sickness bracelets take two major forms, the first being acupressure (similar to acupuncture, but it replaces needles with pressure), and the second option, which uses magnets.

The acupressure versions involve wearing a band that houses a raised ball on each wrist, which press on the P6 pressure points. Those two points are believed to reduce nausea, with the makers promoting them as a motion-sickness cure. The magnetised bracelets work in much the same way, but use magnets to simulate those same pressure points. 

What both techniques have in common is how thoroughly they split opinion as to their effectiveness. Some experts contend the effect from these bracelets and bands is purely a placebo, while others swear by them. There is little credible evidence to suggest either option does much of anything, but if they work for you, that will matter little. 

Other strategies

Drive, or sit in the front of the car. The more you can see, the better you'll feel, so don't close your eyes and hope it will go away. Watching the road ahead means you can alert your brain, and inner ear, earlier to what they're about to experience, and seems to help. 

Equally, try to avoid facing in the opposite direction to the one your travelling, and don't try to read a book, your phone or a map as these are sure and certain ways to make yourself sick. Look up and out a clear window in the direction you're travelling.

Try not to think - or talk - about it. Distraction is key, as the more you obsess over it, the worse it will get.

If you're feeling unwell, crack a window. Experts suggest a blast of fresh air can help.

But most importantly, try not to think - or talk - about it. Distraction is key, as the more you obsess over it, the worse it will get.

How to get rid of car sickness

The only positive side to motion sickness is that you can put a stop to it. If you're wondering how to stop car sickness, it's easy: stop. Literally stop the car and get out. The moment the motion stops, the motion sickness does to. 

Take a break, distract yourself by trying to explain what Einstein was on about to a small child, and have another go. Asking the driver to slow down is also worth a try, although it can cause arguments.

When it comes to kids, stopping is often the only answer, as getting them to chew down ginger, or tablets, is going to be tough, although the wrist bands are probably your best bet.

Have you suffered from travel sickness? Tell us your experiences in the comments below.

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