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Tips for Reducing Airsickness

I was the kid who always became sick in the car. I remember my dad needing pull over to the side of the road when I was very young and rushing to open the door to keep me from messing up the car interior. While I grew out of such intense illness, I continue to have difficulty if I try to read in a moving vehicle.

When I started to fly in passenger planes in my teens I felt terrible! I quickly learned to fly with Dramamine (and a companion to help me while I was obtunded by the medication), then the less drowsy type so I could function more independently. I continue my ritual of making sure I always have an airsickness bag in the seat pocket as soon as I sit down. The one time I tried using SeaBands without Dramamine I filled the bag. After that is was back to medications before every flight to spare my fellow travelers!

The early coping mechanisms I developed included Dramamine and using candy, such as Jolly Ranchers or mentos, to suck on at takeoff and landing. These worked to help keep the worst symptoms at bay, but even light pockets of air brought on nausea, not to mention when we’d hit true turbulence!

As a physical therapist, I’ve learned a lot more about the vestibular system, our balance system, and the interaction of what we see and what we feel. This helped me understand more about the cause of my own motion sickness- the mismatch of my inner ear telling me my position in space and tilt relative to the surface of the earth, and what me eyes were telling me inside the airplane cabin, that I remained sitting upright. This helped me understand the next big fix- always sit by a window! Using the horizon or the surface of the ground below brings my visual (eyes) and vestibular (inner ears) systems into agreement. Even up above the clouds this helps, as the clouds tend to follow the contour of the Earth overall. This is more challenging at night! However it goes a long way toward further reducing my nausea.

The next big thing I’ve learned is the role of our central nervous system in dizziness (which also has an effect on anxiety and pain perception). The sympathetic nervous system is our “fight or flight” system, and is reflected with short shallow breaths. The parasympathetic nervous system is our “rest and digest” system, and allows for decreased dizziness, nausea, stress, and pain perception. You can deliberately tap into that system by using slow belly breathing. Game changer! When that nauseous feeling starts creeping in, focus on your breath. Try to fill up your belly every time you inhale, like inflating a balloon. Let the breath out gently. Repeat. Notice your shoulders relax, and your abdominal muscles release.