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Are headaches during long car rides a sign of carsickness?
Q: My 4-year-old daughter has begun complaining of headaches during long car rides. Could this be a form of carsickness? She never appears to be nauseous. At first we thought she might be "faking" the headaches, but now we think she really gets them.
Melissa Cedarburg
A: Melissa, your daughter’s headaches during long car rides are probably a sign of carsickness, as you said. Carsickness or motion sickness is a common problem among young children. It’s most common from 3 to 12 years of age. Many children outgrow it, but some teenagers and adults continue to experience it. It can be hereditary, so if you or your daughter’s father had motion sickness, your daughter is more likely to have it.

Motion sickness happens when the body, inner ear and eyes experience motion in different ways and send confusing messages to the brain. This typically results in dizziness, nausea and sometimes vomiting. Most young children will complain, “I don’t feel good” or, “I feel sick.” Your daughter’s complaints of headache probably descote the dizziness and discomfort in her head.

Here are some tips to try to prevent carsickness:
  • Before the car ride, give your child a light snack. Crackers, fruit, carrot sticks or juice will do, but avoid a big meal, milk and fried foods. Take along a light snack for the ride.

  • Give your child fresh air. Roll down the car windows, don’t smoke in the car, and avoid heavy perfume. On longer trips, try to stop occasionally to let your child get out and walk around.

  • Keep your child entertained with her favourite music or story tapes. Sing songs, tell stories and play car games looking for different coloured cars. Make sure she has a booster seat so she can see outside of the car. Don’t let her read a book, since that can make motion sickness worse.

  • Be prepared: Make sure your car’s exhaust system is working properly. Fill up the petrol tank when your child is not in the car. Always have supplies on hand in case of vomiting: a plastic container or paper bag, a towel, water, wipes, clean clothes and a plastic bag for the dirty clothes. Leave a little extra time to get places, just in case she gets sick. If she vomits, stay calm and clean up as casually as possible. Try not to make her feel bad about it, and be hopeful that the next car ride will be better.
If your daughter continues to have problems with headaches, be sure to discuss this with her doctor. Rarely, children have headaches caused by migraines or other conditions.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician