Medically Approved

Everything you should know about treatment for motion sickness

People on roller coaster

Nausea can take the fun out of summertime boat rides and road trips. Here’s how to calm the storm in your belly.

Ingrid Cruz

By Ingrid Cruz

For many, summer is a time for road trips and boat rides. As the pandemic lets up, you might even think about booking a cruise or taking a spin on the nearest roller coaster. What do these activities have in common? They all involve movement, which can make sensitive stomachs churn.

When summer fun whips you around, you may experience motion sickness. The most common symptoms are cold sweats, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. This typically stems from confusion in the parts of your brain that control balance, says Candace Sanders, PharmD, a pharmacist in Tupelo, Mississippi.

This brain confusion is the basis of the “sensory conflict” hypothesis. This is the most widely accepted explanation for motion sickness. It says the discomfort you feel while in motion is caused by a disconnect between your senses. The signals coming in from your muscles, joints and inner ear (a system that regulates balance) don’t sync up. For example: Your inner ear registers a running motion, but your muscles and joints are at rest. This could happen on a bumpy bus.

Changes in air pressure can also throw off your balance, says Sanders. You may have experienced this in an airplane. Whatever the cause, the result is unpleasant. It’s also treatable.

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Treatment options for motion sickness

For most people, over-the-counter medications are very effective, says Sanders. The two most common are the antihistamines dimenhydrinate (Dramamine®) and meclizine (Bonine®). Of the 2, she generally recommends the latter. “Meclizine is [the least likely] to make you drowsy,” she says. “And it lasts a little bit longer than other antihistamines.”

If you experience severe nausea or vomiting, or if you’re worried about side effects, you might need a prescription. The most common is scopolamine (Transderm Scop®). This belongs to a class of medications known as anticholinergics. It’s given through a patch that adheres to the skin behind your ear. (Download a scopolamine coupon here.)

Doctors may also use scopolamine patches to prevent nausea after an operation, giving a dose before surgery. In a study from the journal Military Medicine, researchers found that scopolamine was the best option for flight crews. The patch had fewer side effects than other medications.

Promethazine (Phenergan®) is another motion-sickness medication your doctor might prescribe. It’s effective, but one study on astronauts-in-training found that the side effects were similar to being legally drunk on alcohol. It’s also important that you never give promethazine to children younger than 2 years old. It could cause breathing to slow to dangerous, and possibly lethal, levels.

All these medications require time to take effect. For ones you take by mouth, such as meclizine, take it an hour before you start moving. Dramamine kicks in slightly faster, but you should still take it 30 to 60 minutes beforehand.

For a scopolamine patch, put it on 4 hours before the motion begins. And you can wear it for up to 3 days. That comes in handy if you’re heading off on a cruise. (Click here to learn about traveling with your COVID-19 vaccine.)

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What to expect when you take medication for motion sickness

Motion sickness medication works by passing through the blood-brain barrier to slow down your central nervous system. “These medications get to the part of the brain that causes sense distortion,” says Sanders. They effectively turn down the feeling of movement.

Unfortunately, that makes sleepiness a common side effect, says Sanders. “Most of the antihistamines are what we call first-generation antihistamines,” she says. “These are similar to Benadryl® (diphenhydramine), so they cause a lot of drowsiness.”

For this reason, you should avoid operating heavy machinery or driving a car or boat while taking motion-sickness medication. You should also avoid taking the medication before underwater activities, such as snorkeling or scuba diving.

Scopolamine patches are less likely to cause drowsiness. But if you have sensitive skin, the glue could cause burning or itching. In some cases, the medication can cause dry mouth, a sore throat or confusion. And if you wear the patch for several days, you may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as dizziness, headache or nausea, when it’s removed. You should contact your doctor if any of these side effects are severe.

To avoid the risk of a medication interaction, you should also avoid taking motion sickness medication while taking other medications or substances, such as:

  • Alcohol
  • Anesthetics
  • Antihistamines
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Narcotics
  • Sedatives

Ways to prevent motion sickness without medication

In place of or in addition to medication, Sanders recommends the following strategies to avoid motion sickness:

  • On a plane, sit in the middle. The seat just above the wing tends to provide the smoothest ride.
  • When traveling in a boat or car, focus on a point far ahead on the horizon. Distant objects don’t appear to move as fast.
  • Use acupressure on the inside of your forearm. This has been shown to reduce feelings of nausea. To do this, locate the pressure point about 3 fingers up from your wrist. Press gently between the tendons and massage for a few minutes before switching to the other wrist. Alternately, a wrist band called an Acuband® is designed to keep gentle pressure on the desired spot.

It might take a little time to dial in your motion-sickness strategy. But once you find the right combination, you’ll finally be free to enjoy road trips, cruises and possibly even roller coasters.

You shouldn’t have to pay full price for medication. Download our app to access coupons for up to 80% off at the pharmacy.

Additional sources
Scopolamine and motion sickness:
Military Medicine (2017). “Management of Sea Sickness in Susceptible Flight Crews”
Promethazine hinders performance like alcohol: Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine (2000). “Promethazine as a motion sickness treatment: impact on human performance and mood states”
Acupressure for motion sickness: Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine (2001). “Acupressure relieves the symptoms of motion sickness and reduces abnormal gastric activity”