Motion sickness

Originally Published: January 24, 2003 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: November 22, 2013
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Alice,

Why do I get car sick?

Dear Reader,

Car sickness is a form of motion sickness, which some people experience riding in automobiles, airplanes, boats, trains, and amusement rides. Discordant signals sent from different parts of the body to the brain cause the nausea and feelings of discomfort that typically accompany motion sickness.

Your brain gets information from several sources concerning the type and direction of your movements. The first, and most important, source is the inner ear. The inner ear, also responsible for balance, contains fluid that shifts according to your body's movement, pushing little hairs one way or the other. This lets your brain know about the direction you're moving in. Your brain also receives information from the eyes, skin pressure receptors that tell the brain what parts of the body are on the ground, and muscle and joint receptors that tell the brain which parts of the body are moving. The central nervous system (the brain and the spinal cord) compiles all of this information to create a complete picture of what is happening.

If signals don't make sense together, you may experience motion sickness. For example, say you are reading a book in a car. Your inner ear and skin receptors are telling your brain that you are moving. Your eyes see only the stationary book, and tell your brain that you are not moving. These bits of information don't go together, and the result is the discomfort that you feel and call car sickness.

Symptoms of motion sickness include unease and headaches in mild cases, to nausea, vomiting, excessive sweating and salivation, and dizziness, as well as feelings of anxiety and loss of color in the face in more severe cases.

Anxiety about motion sickness before a trip can be a real factor in both bringing on an attack and its severity. Concentrate on preventative measures. Here are some tips:

  • If you are in a plane or boat, sit as close to the center as possible.
  • In a car, keep your eyes focused on the horizon; don't focus on objects speeding by. It might also help to sit in the front seat.
  • Face forward rather than backwards in a car, boat, or train.
  • Do not sit with or talk with people who are experiencing motion sickness; it will probably increase your own anxiety.
  • Avoid reading while moving.
  • Eat only small meals and avoid greasy foods before and during travel. Don't use alcohol and/or other drugs right before and during travel.
  • Some studies have shown ginger to aid in reducing the effects of motion sickness. Take ginger powder capsules or chew on fresh or candied ginger root. Another popular folk remedy is peppermint candy and/or tea.
  • You may also consider taking an antihistamine. Many can be bought over-the-counter. These often must be taken before traveling and can cause drowsiness.
  • Antiemetics are another drug option, including scopolamine patches. Some of these are also available over-the-counter.

If your motion sickness is severe, or if the above techniques do not help, you can talk with your primary care provider about further options. Columbia students can make an appointment at Medical Services (Morningside campus) or the Student Health Service (CUMC).

Alice