Motion sickness: The signs and symptoms

It’s hard to predict who — or when — motion sickness may strike. Here’s why your child may get the queasies and how you can help.

Photo: jackscoldsweat/iStockphoto

Your little passenger in the back seat has become strangely quiet. You peek in the rearview mirror and his face is pasty-white, covered with a sheen of perspiration. Uh-oh, you’d better pull over. It might be motion sickness — and you know what comes next!

What causes motion sickness?
Michael Dickinson, a paediatrician in Miramichi, NB, explains that motion sickness is the result of a mismatch between the information the brain is receiving from the eyes and the inner ears. “Those signals are usually in sync and the brain knows what to do with them,” Dickinson explains. “But in cases of motion sickness, the eyes are sending one signal and the inner ear is sending another. The brain panics, and it makes you nauseous.” Motion sickness is very common in kids from age two right on up, but no one knows why some people are not affected. Kids can outgrow it, or develop it when they’re older, even if they never had it before.

What are the signs?
“Kids become lethargic, pale or sweaty, and may get a headache or lose their appetite. But the most dramatic symptom is when they start puking,” says Dickinson. While a long trip down a smooth stretch of highway may not be problematic, twisting roads or a driver who hits the brakes frequently may cause trouble.

What can you do?
If travelling by car, plan frequent stops so everyone can stretch their legs. “The symptoms build up. When you take a break, they come down to zero again, then you can drive a bit further.” Adults and teens prone to motion sickness do better in the front seat, where their view isn’t obstructed (the Canadian Paediatric Society recommends children under age 13 sit in the back seat). The back middle seat is the best location for a child feeling queasy. “Being able to look out a window helps, especially if you can look straight ahead. Your eyes and your inner ears can process that information better,” Dickinson says. For this reason, reading or watching movies should be avoided.

Can you prevent it?
Some swear by ginger — in capsules, cookies or tea — to stave off the queasies. Dickinson recommends Gravol, which is safe for kids two and older and comes in syrup or chewable tablets. He says that families may need to experiment to find the dosage that works. “It’s critical that you give Gravol to the child ahead of time,” says Dickinson. “If he takes it after he gets the symptoms, it just sits in his stomach, and then he throws it back up. Once you have a child who has symptoms, medication is not going to help. You’ll have to stop the vehicle.”

A version of this article appeared in our April 2013 issue with the headline “Misery in motion,” p. 28.

Want to talk to other parents about this issue? Join the Health board in our forums>

FILED UNDER: