Ask Dr. Marla: How do you prevent motion sickness?

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My child often gets motion sickness in a car. We’re planning to go on a cruise this year and I’m wondering if we should use the antinausea patches. Have you heard if these work? And do you have any tips for preventing nausea when we’re in a car?


While common, we really do not know what causes motion sickness in kids. Typically your child will feel queasy and unwell. Some children feel cold and clammy and will progress onto vomiting. On occasion, because of having had car sickness before, a child will anticipate getting sick at the thought of an upcoming car ride. The good news is that typically this does get better over time!

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, motion sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting signals from the motion-sensing parts of the body: the inner ears, the eyes, and nerves in our arms and legs. Under usual circumstances, all three areas know that we are in motion. When the signals that are received and sent are inconsistent, the brain receives conflicting signals and activates a response that can make you sick. The same thing can happen when a child is sitting so low in the backseat of a car that she cannot see outside. Her inner ear senses the motion, but her eyes and joints do not.

Interestingly, many children with car sickness will experience occasional headaches years later. As a result there is a belief that motion sickness may be an early form of migraine.

Motion sickness occurs most often on a first boat or plane ride, or when the motion is very intense, such as that caused by rough water or turbulent air. Stress and excitement can also start this problem or make it worse.

I can understand why you are concerned about the upcoming cruise. If a child is very ill in a car you can always stop the car! Not so with a cruise. The good part is that cruise ships have stabilizers and are not all that turbulent. Before the cruise, reassure your child that a cruise is entirely different than a car. Meanwhile, to prevent nausea when driving try feeding your child small meals often, or distracting kids in the car by singing, listening to the radio or playing a word game.

If you are going on a trip and your child has had motion sickness before, you might want to give her anti-nausea medication ahead of time to prevent problems. Some of these medications are available without a prescription, but ask your health-care provider before using them. Although they can help, they often produce side effects, such as drowsiness, dry mouth and nose, or blurred vision.

Got a health question? Submit it to Dr. Marla.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2012.

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