by Iris Winston

A pale, four-year-old leans unsteadily against the family car parked at the side of the highway. He raises his eyes to the heavens.

“Why me? I’m a good boy,” he says sadly, just before he throws up.

Probably true, but being good does not stop motion sickness. That unpleasant sensation of inner turmoil and nausea remains a major problem for travellers, especially youngsters.

This is partly because they are usually confined to the back seat of the family vehicle, where the view out of the side windows and the greater likelihood of a bumpy ride increase the chance of suddenly regurgitating breakfast or lunch.

“Car sickness occurs when the brain receives conflicting messages,” explains family physician Dr. Gail White. “When what you see and what your body senses are different, your equilibrium is disturbed.”

The sense of balance is maintained through the interaction of various parts of the nervous system. When the “outposts” (ears, eyes, skin, muscles and joints) send opposing messages to the centre (brain and spinal cord), the result is trouble.

The inner ear monitors the directions of motion: forward, backward, side to side, up and down. The eyes determine where the body is in space and also monitor direction. Skin pressure receptors announce that the feet are on the ground or the buttocks are on a chair. Muscles and joint sensory receptors note which parts of the body are moving. Each forwards messages to the brain for processing. However, when they don’t lead to the same conclusion, they are “returned to sender” – so to speak – and chucked out or up.

For example, when you look out of one of the car’s side windows, your eyes send the message that the countryside is whizzing by. But the signal from the body in the car seat denies motion. Or you may be reading in the back seat. Your inner ears and skin receptors sense motion, but your eyes see only the pages of your book.

When what you see is not what you feel, the reaction to the crossed signals is often all over the floor of the car.

A second contributing factor in the business of barfing is the type of ride. The motorist who drives jerkily and brakes suddenly adds to the collection of conflicting messages as he throws susceptible passengers off balance, so accelerating their nausea. A suspension system in poor shape also gives them an unpleasantly bouncy outing. As tired shocks and struts hinder the smoothness of the journey, the vomit quotient climbs.

Therefore, the first anti-car sickness measures are to check your automobile’s suspension system, aim to travel on well-maintained roads and ensure that your driving style is not partly to blame for your youngster’s (or pet’s) discomfort on a long car journey.

Then, assuming that the car is in tip-top condition and the driver is really smooth, it’s time to look at preventive and remedial measures.

In general, this means eliminating or reducing the confusion of contradictory input. So, no reading or hand-held games, bouncing from seat to seat or facing backwards for anyone prone to motion sickness. Having the sufferer “focus on one thing out front” also minimizes nausea, says Dr. White.

Checking out the horizon through the front window ensures that the eyes see the same motion that the body and inner ears feel. That’s why car seats which elevate youngsters enough to view the scene in front are effective. An alternative is to travel at night, when the children are more likely to sleep, and there’s less to see if they don’t.

Eating lightly before setting out also helps to keep a queasy stomach calm, providing that the food is healthy — no junk food, no sugar, says Dr. White. Good ventilation, loose, comfortable clothing and frequent stops also ease the pain of travel.

An assortment of prescription and over-the-counter medications administered before the journey begins can be effective. However, because one of the side effects of motion sickness is decreased absorption in the stomach, they work only if taken well before the victim starts feeling sick.

Such prescription medicated patches as the scopolamine ear patch (not for pre-teens) must be applied several hours before travelling. Drugs, such as Gravol, must be taken from 30 minutes to an hour before setting out. Anti-histamines should be taken two hours beforehand.

An external preventive measure that Dr. White favours is the seaband. Available at drug stores, the seaband is a thick eleastic band with a button. When the band is placed on the wrist, the button hits an acupuncture site.

“It’s good for non-medical treatment of motion sickness,” she says.

Other non-medical remedies include ginger — root, capsules or ginger ale — and mint leaves, even hanging a chain hanging from the rear fender of the car.

“When there are no good cures in medicine, you get (folk) remedies from other walks of life,” comments Dr. White.

The automobile industry also considers motion sickness in the vehicles it manufactures. The theatre seats of the Dodge Durango “allow a better view through the front of the vehicle,” says Mark Tracy, lease representative with Capital Dodge Chrysler. The interior of the vehicle, which has a third row of seats for children at the back, “has the most space in vehicles of its class,” he adds.

The Pontiac Trans Sport minivan advertises on the Wold Wide Web that the structure of its “no hurl” vehicle ensures a smooth ride, that keeps sickness at bay.

The claim is that it “goes far beyond seating plans and comfortable seats. Trans Sport engineers delved in (to) the causes of motion sickness in vehicles and developed a body structure that avoids the frequency modes that are most likely to contribute to this problem that affects children and adults alike.”

Should all mechanical, medical and common sense preventive measures fail, the only way to stop the sickness is to stop the car and allow the sufferer brief respite in a cool place. In any case, that gives a child time to ask the question: “Why me? I’m a good boy.”

Connect with