Car sickness in children

Car sickness in children is a common form of motion sickness. I am often asked about it’s prevention by parents. It usually occurs between the ages of 2 and 12 years, being rare in infants. Car sickness occurs in children who are passengers in vehicles.

Car sickness in children
Car sickness in children

What causes car sickness and who gets it?

The exact answer to these questions is unknown. There is more than one theory. It is however most widely accepted to occur when there is sensory conflict during motion. The sensory conflict arises when the detection of motion by the different sensory organs namely the inner ears, the eyes and the input from the skin and muscles conflict with one another. An example of this is when a child is seated in the back seat, facing the parent’s seat, reading a book or watching a movie. During this period the inner ear will detect motion but the eyes that are not following the surroundings outside the vehicle not. This conflict in sensory input, confuses the brain leading to car sickness. Car sickness may represent an early form of migraine. It may also occur more commonly when the child is excited or anxious.

How does car sickness present?

Affected children may complain of an upset stomach, loss of appetite, nausea, cold sweat, fatigue and even vomiting. Some children may become pale, quiet and sleepy whilst others become irritable, restless and start crying. Excessive yawning may be an early sign.

How is car sickness diagnosed?

Diagnosis is typically based on the history. When a medical doctor is consulted it is unlikely that the clinical examination will yield anything. There are no specific tests to confirm the diagnosis.

When should a doctor be consulted?

When preventative measures fail, and medication becomes the next step it is advised to consult with a medical doctor. If symptoms are present at anytime whilst not moving or driving it is essential to see a doctor. Other symptoms such as staring into space, headaches and difficulty with talking, hearing, seeing and walking necessitates a doctor visit.

How can car sickness in children be prevented?

There are a few practical options you can try before embarking on medication. The following may help:
• If possible, travel during your child’s usual nap time.
• Avoid any big meals, especially fatty and spicy food before or during travel. Use bland food, crackers, biltong and enough fluids, preferably water.
• Ginger containing sweats and biscuits may prevent nausea associated with car sickness.
• Encourage your child to look out of the window and in case of smaller children ensure that they sit high in their baby seats with or without booster seats so that they can see the outside world and the horizon. This may not be possible in toddlers who require rear facing baby seats, but luckily car sickness is uncommon in this group.
• Children should face forward and avoid excessive moving or looking around.
• Limit screen time such as videos and games and reading in the back of the vehicle.
• Keep the air-conditioning on. Remove air fresheners and strong odors from the vehicle. Never smoke in the presence of a child.
• Distract your children by keeping them entertained with music, stories and simple talking.
• Stop frequently, have the child get out, walk around and inhale some fresh air.

Is there medication to prevent car-sickness?

There is different medication to prevent car sickness in children available on the market. The aim of this medication is prevention and therefore should be taken timeously before the car trip, in order to be effective. Even in the case of over-the-counter medication it is still advisable to consult a medical doctor first. Prescription medication may work well but some side effects such as drowsiness and even agitation may occur. It is always advisable to try out new medication before a long trip is undertaken.

What can you do when your child develops car sickness?

When you suspect it in your child, stop the vehicle as soon as possible and have your child walk outside or lay down. Fresh air is important and the application of a cool cloth to the forehead my accomplish wonders.