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 to the brain from different parts of the body 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 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. The brain also receives related 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’re moving. Your eyes see only the stationary book and tell your brain that you’re 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 can occur suddenly and include nausea, cold sweats, as well as vomiting and dizziness. Though motion sickness can happen for anyone, it is more likely to be experienced by children ages two to twelve, those assigned female at birth, people prone to migraine headaches, and folks taking certain medications that increase nausea (such as certain antibiotics, oral contraceptives, narcotic medications, some antidepressants, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and asthma medications).

It may not be possible to avoid all of the possible triggers for motion sickness for those on the move, but there are strategies you can use to help reduce the icky-sick feelings as much as possible. Here are some tips to consider moving forward:

  • Consider your seating arrangements. Going on a cruise ship? Try to book a cabin towards the front or middle and at water level. Traveling by plane? Consider booking a seat over the wing and turn up the air vent when seated. On a train, grab a forward-facing seat near the front.
  • In a car, try sitting in the front seat and keep your eyes focused on the horizon; don't focus on objects speeding by. Or, if you’re ready to take the wheel, driving can limit the perception of motion as well.
  • Add some distractions such as listening to music, using aromatherapy, or by sucking on flavored lozenges (with a recommendation for the ginger-flavored variety to help with gastric emptying). Reading, however, may exacerbate motion sickness.
  • If you’re able, keeping your head still, shutting your eyes, or lying down can reduce the sensations of motion that get your stomach in a jumble.
  • If you’ve got a buddy or someone nearby who is also dealing with motion sickness, it’s best to avoid interacting with them (it may just make you feel worse).
  • Eat only small meals (steering clear of spicy and greasy foods) and stay hydrated with water before and during travel. Limiting alcohol and caffeine intake may also help.
  • You may also consider taking medication. Over-the-counter antihistamines may help (but can cause drowsiness) or a prescription scopaolamine patch is also often recommended.

If your motion sickness is severe, or if these techniques don’t provide some relief, talking with your health care provider to explore your issue further may yield additional options for prevention and management.


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