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How to avoid motion and altitude sickness on your holiday

Whether you’re travelling in a moving vehicle, or hiking to a lookout point, here’s how to minimise nausea and headache without resorting to medicine.

Australia’s Great Ocean Road may be one of the most scenic drives you can go on this June holiday.

But if the very thought of cruising on a long, winding road is enough to make you turn green, you've probably had motion sickness before and it wasn’t a good experience for you or your fellow passengers.

Motion sickness has a long history. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Chinese knew about it.

As does NASA, which performed countless tests to determine what medicines and dosage work best for quelling astronauts’ dizziness and nausea.

01:25 Min
Non-medicated ways to help quell the giddiness and nausea from motion sickness.

So, what causes motion sickness when even highly trained spacemen and women aren’t exempt from it?

And more importantly, how do you prevent and treat motion sickness so that your upcoming driving holiday isn’t memorable for the wrong things?

It boils down to the mixed signals that your brain receives and what your eyes are seeing, said Dr Edwin Chng, Medical Director of Parkway Shenton.

Take, for example, scrolling through your Instagram feed on the smartphone while in a moving car or train. 

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“You feel like you're moving but your eyes are telling your brain that you aren’t going anywhere as your smartphone appears stationary.

These conflicting signals are the result of symptoms of motion sickness,” said Dr Chng.

“On the other hand, if you look out of the window and see the moving scenery, the signals from your ears and eyes are congruent, and so no symptoms of motion sickness are felt,” he added.

(Photo: Unsplash)


Why are you more prone to motion sickness than your fellow travellers when you’re all in the same vehicle?

You’ve only got yourself – or rather, your genes – to blame, according to Dr Chng. “Some genetic variants have been associated with increased susceptibility to motion sickness,” he said.

Or you may be plain unlucky, said Timothy Hain, an otoneurologist and professor emeritus at Northwestern University.

Some people are “just wired to be more sensitive to motion than others,” he said in an article in The Atlantic.

Hormones come into play, too.

Hormones can make individuals more susceptible to motion sickness and because women tend to have more hormonal changes – pregnancy, menstruation, using oral contraceptives – than men, they “are generally more susceptible to motion sickness,” said Dr Chng.

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Another red flag: Migraines. If you suffer from these debilitating headaches from time to time, you’re also more prone to motion sickness, said Dr Chng.

For parents travelling with children and aren’t sure how the little ones will handle the long ride, Dr Chng said that kids who are less than two years old are typically resistant to motion sickness.

“The incidence peaks at approximately nine years of age and then decreases throughout adulthood,” he added.


If you have some time to go before the holiday, try adaptation exercises to prep yourself.

"One of the best countermeasures for motion sickness is adaptation," said Catherine Webb, a research psychologist with the US Army Aeromedical Research Laboratory, who noted that about 95 per cent of people will eventually adapt to motion.

(Photo: Unsplash)

It could be travelling in a taxi, bus or the MRT – any mode of transportation where you’re likely to feel a little queasy – for a duration that you can manage.

Gradually increase the travelling time until you’re able to take the entire ride without feeling ill. During this period, try not to pause the desensitising exercise for more than a day, said Dr Webb.

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If it’s too late and the nausea is taking a hold of you, Dr Chng said that the symptoms typically subside after 36 to 72 hours of continuous exposure. 

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to make the motion sickness better:

  • Suck on a ginger slice or a mint. Or sip a light fizzy drink such as ginger ale.
  • If possible, open the window to let in fresh air.
  • If you can, stand up and look over the horizon. Sitting or lying down may make you feel worse. If you’re in a car and can’t stand up, lean your head against the seat’s headrest to minimise head movements.


Some of the signs of altitude sickness may be similar to motion sickness – nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness – but the two are caused by completely different reasons, said Dr Chng.

“Altitude sickness is due to the rapid exposure to low amounts of oxygen at high elevation.”

(Photo: Unsplash)

At more than 3,000m above sea level, breathing becomes difficult because you aren't able to take in as much oxygen as at sea level.

That is usually the height when altitude sickness tends to kick in. 

If you have an appetite for adventure holidays, it isn’t unusual to reach that kind of height.

Tibet’s capital Lhasa is set at 3,650m, while on the other side of the world, reaching Peru’s Cuzco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, places you at 3,310m above sea level.

Closer to home, the pinnacle of Malaysia’s Kota Kinabalu is already over 4,000m.

“Those with a history of altitude sickness have a high risk of developing it,” said Dr Chng, although the UK's NHS website noted that just because you haven’t had altitude sickness before doesn’t mean you won’t develop it.

Other factors that predispose you to the condition include your rate of ascent, alcohol, vigorous exercise prior to acclimatisation and medical conditions that interfere with respiration or circulation, said Dr Chng.

To avoid altitude sickness, try the following:

  • Avoid flying directly to areas of high altitude.
  • Take two or three days to get used to high altitudes before going above 3,000m.
  • Avoid climbing more than 300m to 500m a day.
  • Have a rest day every 600m to 900m you ascend. Or schedule a rest day every three or four days.
  • Drink enough water.
  • Avoid alcohol and smoking.
  • Don’t do strenuous exercise for the first 24 hours.
  • Eat a light but high-calorie diet.

If altitude sickness hits you in the middle of your trek, here’s what you can do:

  • Stop and rest where you are. 
  • Descend to a level where your symptoms improve.
  • Don't go any higher for at least 24 to 48 hours.
  • Make sure you're drinking enough water.
  • Avoid alcohol, smoking and exercise.
Source: CNA/bk