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Harvard Commentaries
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Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School


Motion Sickness


February 07, 2008

Healthy Lifestyle
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Living an Active Life
Motion Sickness
Motion Sickness
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If sailing makes you queasy, you're not alone. Motion sickness, whether on boats or in planes, cars or amusement rides, can strike anyone.
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2008-02-07
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InteliHealth Content
2010-02-07

InteliHealth Content

Motion Sickness

 

If sailing makes you queasy, you're not alone. Motion sickness, whether on boats or in planes, cars or amusement rides, can strike anyone.
 
Take world-class sailor Gary Jobson, who has won five America's Cup championships. Though you wouldn't expect it of such an experienced water-dweller, Jobson used to get green at the gills whenever he left shore.
 
"I'd get overheated, then queasy, then [I'd] throw up." By the age of 18, Jobson knew he wanted to be a racer, but was getting nauseated all the time. "I like racing, so the only question was how to overcome it," he says. Through trial and error, Jobson figured out what worked for him, including regular use of a motion-sickness medication.
 
Those who have suffered from motion sickness know that it isn't limited to sailors. You can get just as queasy driving to Grandma's house or flying to Florida for the winter. The symptoms might start with yawning and a dizzy sensation, but can progress to feeling terrible with a combination of headache, nausea and vomiting.
 
So what causes this wretched retching condition?
 
Motion sickness occurs because the brain is trying to resolve two conflicting sensory inputs, one in the visual system and the other in the inner ear's balance system.
 
When you're sailing, for instance, your eyes and your inner ear are each interpreting the motion differently. Your eyes interpret the up-and-down movement of the waves, while the vestibular system of the inner ear interprets side-to-side movement.
Remedies range from prescription and over-the-counter medications to unproven choices such as ginger capsules.
 
For many people, the first step on the way toward prevention of motion sickness is the use of a medication, such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine and Marmine), meclizine (Antivert), cyclizine (Marezine) and diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
 
Jobson says he never found relief until he started wearing a prescription transdermal patch behind his ear. The small adhesive patch releases scopolamine, a drug that acts on the nerves of the inner ear to keep all those external sensations from affecting your sense of balance. This treatment lasts three days, but you can't apply it when you are already sick. By then it is too late.
 
Ideally, the patch is applied six to eight hours in advance.
 
Consult with your physician to determine whether medication may be helpful for you. And be sure to ask the doctor or pharmacist what is safe for babies and older children.
 
One non-medical method that can help avert or decrease motion sickness is to fix your eyes above the horizon on a distant object, but not track it or watch it move. This will lessen the discrepancy between what your visual and balance systems are experiencing.
 
Here are some other tips:
 
When sailing:
  • Avoid staying below deck, where you cannot see the horizon. Cruise ship passengers, for example, are more likely to get seasick below deck because their vestibular sense detects motion while their eyes are fixed on motionless surroundings.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Take over the wheel of the boat. This helps you focus on a point ahead.
When on an airplane:
  • Stay in the middle of the plane.
  • Don't look out the window.
  • Close your eyes.
All of these measures minimize the conflict between the sensation in your inner ear, which says you are upright, and the tilting horizon outside the window.
 
When in the car:
  • Keep air circulating. Poor air circulation can make you feel warm and sweaty, which increases nausea.
  • Avoid reading. It is better to keep your eyes focused on a fixed object.
  • Drive. Concentrating on the road helps you focus on a point ahead.
When kids are in the car:
  • Make sure children, including those in a car seat, are sitting high enough to see the horizon outside the window.
  • Stop frequently. If your child looks sweaty, pale, restless or yawns a lot, it's better to stop the car and break the cycle before it gets worse.
  • Offer kids a light snack such as crackers before leaving home. But let the child choose whether to eat. Some kids do much better on an empty stomach.
  • Finally, bring along a leak-proof container or bag. You may not be able to control motion sickness, but don't let its messy consequences ruin your trip.
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