Motion Sickness Explained

Medically Reviewed By Danielle Hildreth, CPT
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Motion sickness is when you feel ill while traveling by car, bus, train, or airplane. It can also occur on amusement rides and while in a virtual reality immersive experience. Motion sickness happens when the reality of movement and the perception of movement are not the same. For example, you are sitting still in a car, but your vestibular system senses head movement, which is the movement of the car. This results in you feeling unwell.

This article discusses what causes motion sickness. It also talks about the symptoms, risk factors, treatments, and prevention methods related to the condition.

What causes motion sickness?

Two people sitting in the backseat of a car
lechatnoir/Getty Images

The exact neurobiological reason that some people experience motion sickness is not known. However, it is thought to be the result of your body feeling unbalanced in some type of moving vehicle, causing confusion in your senses.

Some common causes of motion sickness include:

  • car rides
  • train rides
  • air travel
  • amusement rides
  • video games or virtual reality

Specific circumstances that may cause motion sickness include:

  • not having enough air circulation while in the car
  • reading in the car
  • experiencing turbulence while on a plane
  • feeling the rocking of a boat
  • sitting in the backseat of a car and being unable to see the horizon

Learn 10 tips for healthy plane travel.

What are the symptoms of motion sickness?

Symptoms of motion sickness may vary from person to person. Most people with motion sickness experience some or all of the following symptoms:

What are the risk factors for motion sickness?

Anyone is susceptible to motion sickness. However, certain people may be more likely to experience it than others.

The risk factors for motion sickness include:

  • Sex: People assigned female at birth tend to be more prone to motion sickness.
  • Age: Children ages 2–12 years are more susceptible than people of other ages.
  • Medical conditions: People who have conditions such as vertigo, migraine, and vestibular conditions are more likely to experience motion sickness.
  • Hormones: Hormone fluctuations, such as those that people experience during menstruation or pregnancy, can increase your risk of experiencing motion sickness.

People above the age of 50 years are less likely than other groups to experience motion sickness.

Read 8 tips for staying healthy during holiday travel.

How can you treat motion sickness?

Often, your motion sickness will subside once the motion stops. For instance, when you get out of the car or off the plane, you may notice your symptoms begin to ease quite quickly.

This is not always an option, however, so there are ways that you can treat motion sickness. These include:

  • Medications: Antihistamines, Dramamine, and scopolamine are all common medications for treating motion sickness. However, they typically make you drowsy. Keep that in mind when taking them. Also, speak with a doctor before giving these medications to children.
  • Eating and drinking: Consuming small amounts of plain crackers and clear fizzy drinks, such as ginger ale, can help ease your nausea once motion sickness begins.

How can you prevent motion sickness?

Prevention is often the most effective way of managing motion sickness. There are many strategies that you can utilize to help prevent motion sickness.

Tips for preventing motion sickness

  • Sit in the front when in a car or on a bus.
  • Choose a window seat on a plane or a train.
  • Close your eyes, sleep, or look at the horizon, if possible.
  • Stay hydrated. Limit your intake of alcohol and caffeine.
  • Eat frequently in small amounts.
  • Avoid smoking.
  • Use activities such as listening to music to distract yourself.
  • Try ginger to help with nausea. This may be in the form of lozenges, tablets, or ginger ale.
  • Breathe fresh air if possible.
  • Breathe slowly while focusing on each breath.
  • Break up long journeys by stopping for a walk or just to get some fresh air when possible.

Summary

Motion sickness occurs when there is a miscommunication between your senses and your body about the movement that you are experiencing. Most people with motion sickness experience it when traveling by car, boat, plane, or train. Some people also experience it on amusement rides, while playing video games, or when using virtual reality.

Prevention is often the most effective way to manage motion sickness. You can prevent it by sitting in the front of a car, staying hydrated, and eating small amounts of food frequently.

There are medications that can treat and help prevent motion sickness. These include antihistamines, Dramamine, and scopolamine. These medications can make you drowsy, so keep that in mind when taking them. Also, always speak with a doctor before giving them to children.

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Medical Reviewer: Danielle Hildreth, CPT
Last Review Date: 2022 Jul 4
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