What Is Motion Sickness?

What is motion sickness?
Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez
Photo Illustration by Keila Gonzalez

This informational guide, part of POPSUGAR's Condition Center, lays out the realities of this health concern: what it is, what it can look like, and strategies that medical experts say are proven to help. You should always consult your doctor regarding matters pertaining to your health and before starting any course of medical treatment.

One in three people experience motion sickness at some point, according to Cleveland Clinic. Motion sickness, which is also referred to as being carsick, seasick, or airsick, doesn't tend to cause serious problems, but it can make traveling stressful and unpleasant. And while it can feel insurmountable in the moment, there are ways to help prevent the queasiness.

Understanding Motion Sickness

Motion sickness occurs when there is a mismatch between sensory systems: either one system isn't functioning as well as it used to, or the brain isn't processing information as well as it used to. The three main sensory systems we use to keep us upright are our feet, vision, and the vestibular system (the inner ear system that detects movement and helps with equilibrium), says Kevin Smith, PT, DPT, owner of Clarity Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy, Inc. "These three systems have to work together and can cause symptoms [of motion sickness] if one isn't functioning properly."

Julia Blank, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center, likes to think of motion sickness as a constellation of symptoms that occurs when movement (or sudden cessation of movement) causes your brain to receive conflicting messages about your body's position in space. "These conflicting messages come from the inner ear, eyes, and various receptors in the skin, muscles, and joints," she adds.

According to Cleveland Clinic, symptoms can include:

  • Dizziness
  • Increased saliva, nausea, and vomiting
  • Clamminess/cold sweats
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Inability to concentrate

Causes of Motion Sickness

Dr. Blank says common triggers include travel by car, bus, train, boat, or plane, as well as any activity with movement, especially anything involving rapid or abrupt shifts in speed or direction (like amusement park rides, roller coasters). Anyone can experience it, but some people may be more prone to the condition, Dr. Blank says. These factors below tend to play a role:

  • Women are more likely to have motion sickness, especially when pregnant or menstruating. A spike in estrogen levels may cause or increase susceptibility to nausea, which is often seen in the first trimester of pregnancy and also during periods, according to Dramamine.com, the website for the common antihisthemine used to treat motion sickness.
  • Children (ages 2 to 12) may also have higher chances of experiencing motion sickness, because of their size: they may be less able to see out the window while in the car, which can lead to the mismatch in their sensory systems that leads to symptoms, Mayo Clinic suggests.
  • Physical state: "You may also be more prone to experiencing motion sickness if you are tired, dehydrated, or sick, especially with a head cold or ear infection," Dr. Blank says. That's due to problems in the vestibular system, the link between your inner ear and your brain, which helps you keep your balance. So if there's disruption there, it can lead to symptoms like nausea, Dr. Smith adds.

Motion sickness is rarely cause for concern. But "if your motion sensitivity is becoming worse, and especially if it is affecting your ability to perform at your job, do chores around the house, or whatever activity you love to do," Dr. Smith advises that you see a doctor.

Most Effective Tips and Treatments For Motion Sickness

There are plenty of options to manage motion sickness — from actions that can lower your chances of getting sick in the first place to treating the symptoms like nausea directly:

  • Choose your seat wisely when it comes to transportation. In a car, you are less likely to experience motion sickness as the driver, since this forces you to focus on driving. "If you're a passenger, try sitting in the front and focusing on scenery in the distance — this acts as a distraction and also tricks your brain into perceiving movement as slower and more stable," Dr. Blank suggests. "On a train, sit in a forward-facing seat near a window, as this helps to 'align' the motion cues you get from your eyes and body. On a ship, choose a cabin that is on a lower deck and centrally located, as these tend to experience less motion. On a plane, ask for a window seat and watch the slow-moving clouds outside."
  • Avoid reading in a moving vehicle. "Whether you're holding a book or reading on an electronic device, the constant movement makes it difficult to focus on the text and increases the perception of instability and speed, which in turn makes motion sickness worse," Dr. Blank says.
  • Cool air helps. In a car or plane, turn the air vent on to direct cool air on your face to help with symptoms like nausea by cooling your body down.
  • Stick to lighter foods when in motion. "Heavier foods, as well as greasy or acidic foods, take longer to digest, leading to heartburn and worsening nausea, so try to avoid these in the hours before travel," Dr. Blank says.
  • Stay hydrated. Hydration helps to keep nausea in check and reduces lightheadedness and dizziness. Dr. Blank suggests drinking plenty of water and minimizing your consumption of caffeinated beverages and alcohol, both of which can result in dehydration.
  • Over-the-counter remedies. Aromatherapy (lavender, peppermint, or ginger), peppermint gum, ginger tea, and wrist bands that use acupressure can help reduce nausea. Antihistamines like Dramamine or Benadryl have the added benefit of sedation to help you sleep through the worst of the symptoms, per Mayo Clinic.
  • Prescription medications. If nothing else seems to work, speak with your doctor about options they can prescribe, like scopolamine patches. "They're perhaps the most effective medication for preventing and treating motion sickness," Dr. Blank says. The patch is applied behind the ear for up to three days per patch. The most common side effect is dry mouth. And people with certain health conditions such as glaucoma should not use the patch.