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Motion sickness

Alice,

Why do I get car sick?

Dear Reader,

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

Peeling back the layers a bit on the body's innerworkings while your brain and belly are feeling sloshy: the brain gets information from several sources concerning the type and direction of the body’s movements. The first source is the inner ear. Also responsible for balance, the inner ear, contains fluid that shifts according to the body's movement, pushing little hairs one way or the other. This lets the brain know about the direction in which a person is moving. 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, motion sickness may result. For example, say you’re 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 resolve once the motion has stopped) and include nausea, cold sweats, sensitivity to smells, as well as vomiting and dizziness. Though motion sickness can happen for anyone, it’s more likely to be experienced by children ages two to twelve, those assigned female at birth, pregnant people, those prone to migraine headaches, people who take certain medications, and folks who have been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. And, it really can differ from person to person; some experience the stomach lurching to and fro easily while others remain unfazed.

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 you may want to think about moving forward:

  • Consider your seating arrangements. Going on a cruise ship? You could try to book a cabin towards the front or middle and at water level. Traveling by plane? You may consider booking a seat over the wing and turn up the air vent when seated. On a train, grabbing a forward-facing seat near the front may help reduce feelings of motion sickness.
  • Keep all eyes on the horizon. In a car, try sitting in the front seat and keep your eyes focused on the horizon ahead; don't focus on objects speeding by. If you’re ready to take the wheel, driving can limit the perception of motion as well.
  • Add some distractions. You may crank some tunes, use aromatherapy, or suck on flavored lozenges (with a recommendation for the ginger-flavored variety to help with gastric emptying). Reading, however, may exacerbate motion sickness.
  • Be still thy head. 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.
  • Limit interactions with those impacted. If you’ve got a buddy or someone nearby who’s also dealing with motion sickness, it’s best to avoid interacting with them (it may just make you feel worse).
  • Grab a snack and some water. 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.
  • 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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Last updated Jan 15, 2021
Originally published Jan 24, 2003