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Do you really need a motion sickness patch for your cruise?

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You’ve boarded your first cruise and spy lots of your shipmates sporting a patch behind their ears. Why are they wearing this? Does it improve their cruise experience? What do all those people know that you don’t?

Those little circular patches you see behind the ears of so many cruisers are most likely a prescription drug called scopolamine transdermal system. It is often prescribed for situational nausea and vomiting after surgery. However, it is also useful for motion sickness, as you might experience on board cruise ships. The medication contained in the patch is slowly released into the wearer’s system over the course of three days. It works through the central nervous system to calm the digestive system.

Now that you know, you might develop a case of FOMO. Should you have asked your doctor for patches for your cruise? When I mentioned the patches to my primary care physician (a fellow cruiser), her response was quick and a bit snarky, “What is up with everybody thinking they need scopolamine patches to go on a cruise?”

She explained that she sees many people with no history of motion sickness who want them. However, she cautions they aren’t for everyone.

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After talking with my doctor, I did further research on prescription motion sickness patches for cruising. Here’s what I learned about whether you really need that scopolamine patch — or if you’re better off without it.

You might not need a patch to weather your cruise

woman on deck of cruise ship

Motion sickness is a possibility on a cruise ship, but don’t assume you will experience it on your sailing. Most large ships are stabilized to prevent excessive motion, and the average cruise (especially to popular destinations in the Bahamas and the Caribbean) takes place in calm waters.

Also, some people are more prone to seasickness than others. If you frequently ride roller coasters and don’t have trouble on airplanes no matter how turbulent, or if you can sit in the backseat of a car on a winding mountain road, you probably aren’t prone to feeling nauseated from movement.

For many people who do feel ill on a cruise, motion sickness is a limited-time event. It might hit you during the first 24 hours of sailing, quickly calming down as your nervous system adapts to the motion. Symptoms might only affect you when the exact set of circumstances appears that disturbs your equilibrium enough to cause nausea. They may then disappear as soon as the ship rights itself, so to speak, or when you head to the more stable lower decks and gaze out at the horizon.

In this case, too, wearing a patch for the duration of the cruise is not warranted.

Still, there are some people who will become ill just reading about rocking ships or turbulent flights and are extremely nervous about heading out to sea on a boat. If that’s you, patches for the duration of any cruise are something you might consider.

Related: How to avoid seasickness on your next cruise

Not everyone can use scopolamine patches

The active medication in the patches can interact with some other medications. It’s a long list and includes common over-the-counter medications like Benadryl. You, your doctor and your pharmacist should carefully evaluate your potential for medication conflicts if you plan to use motion sickness patches during your cruise.

Also, patches aren’t the only seasickness remedy you can try. Some people use over-the-counter medication tablets, such as Dramamine or Bonine. You can also try alternatives to medicine like acupressure bands for your wrists or settle your stomach with foods such as green apples, ginger ale or ginger candies, and crackers.

Related: How to avoid getting sick on a cruise

The patches can have surprising side effects

A motion-sickness patch may look innocuous. However, it is still a prescription medication and can have adverse side effects not to be taken lightly. Consider the possibility of ill effects before you commit to the patch on your next cruise.

For example, I met a woman who put on a patch during her first cruise. She discovered several hours later, as she was putting makeup on that the pupil in one of her eyes was fully dilated — the eye on the side where her patch was placed. She thought she was having a stroke. She contacted her physician, who advised her to immediately remove the patch. The dilation subsided, and all was well for the remainder of her cruise.

She had not experienced any seasickness before using the patch nor after removing it. She had simply taken a proactive approach, just in case. Her medical chart now includes her reaction with a note that she cannot use scopolamine. She does, however, intend to cruise again and hopes her lack of motion sickness on her first cruise will hold true in the future.

Other side effects of the patches include dry mouth, dizziness, drowsiness and even disorientation. Also, a big problem for many cruisers is that you should not consume alcohol while wearing the patch. Doing so intensifies the side effects, especially drowsiness and dizziness.

Related: Do cruise ships have doctors, nurses, medical centers or hospitals?

Patches can be useful in rough seas

huge waves on cruise ship

Although ship captains aim to avoid dangerously rough seas, cruise ships are designed to handle far larger waves than one might think. That means choppy rides may occur. You’ll know rough seas are ahead when you see motion-sickness bags strategically placed in the stairwells.

Scopolamine patches can be useful on any cruise with the potential for large waves, such as hurricane season sailings, transatlantic crossings and cruises through notoriously rough waters, such as the Drake Passage on the way to Antarctica. If you’re nervous about feeling ill during any of these sailings, that is the perfect time to talk to your doctor about a prescription for patches.

Related: What to do if you find yourself on a wildly tilting cruise ship

Do you really need a motion sickness patch for your cruise?

If you are prone to motion sickness in general, talk to your doctor about prescription patches. My physician said she wouldn’t have a problem prescribing the patches for someone going on their first cruise if they don’t have conflicting medications or conditions and understand that there are side effects.

There are a few itineraries and seasons for which even the most sea-hardy among us might proactively take along a supply of patches. It’s better to be prepared and not need them than to suffer through a rough ride without any relief.

If you have successfully worn scopolamine patches in the past without side effects, consider only wearing one the first 24 hours of the cruise or when rough seas are expected.

Bottom line

If you’ve never cruised but generally don’t experience motion sickness, don’t assume you’ll need seasickness medication for your first sailing. You might be surprised that a cruise ship’s ride is much smoother than you thought.

However, if you’re worried motion-induced nausea may sideline you during your cruise, talk to your doctor about the best motion sickness medications before you sail.

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