What to Know About Motion Sickness, Including Causes, Symptoms, and Prevention Methods

Here's what doctors recommend if you're gearing up for a long car ride.

If you've ever felt your stomach drop during a backroads car ride or on a roller coaster, you're not alone: Motion sickness is common, according to MedlinePlus, a resource from the US National Library of Medicine (USNLM), which states that nearly one in three individuals are "highly susceptible to motion sickness."

But whether you're susceptible or not, if you're being jostled around intensely enough, you're probably going to suffer the consequences. "Almost everyone will become motion sick if exposed to motion that is intense enough," per MedlinePlus. Health spoke to experts to find out about the symptoms of motion sickness, how motion sickness is treated, and how to prevent motion sickness in the first place if you know you're going to be traveling for a long period of time.

What Is Motion Sickness, and What Causes It?

Put simply, motion sickness is a type of dizziness, Eric Goldberg, MD, an internal medicine specialist at NYU Langone, tells Health. He explains that it happens when some parts of your body sense motion, while others don't. This can look like the typical motion sickness-causing situations, like riding in an airplane, car, or boat; or it can manifest in other less common situations, like during an elevator ride, while skiing, or during exposure to virtual reality environments (think: IMAX movie theaters).

The common denominator in these situations: Your body is moving (like being hurled through the sky or down an interstate) even though you aren't actively trying to move. This essentially confuses the body—your eyes signal that the body isn't moving, but your inner ears or other parts of the body say differently. "There's a discrepancy. Your brain is trying to figure out which signal is right," Dr. Goldberg says. "That mismatch of information puts stress on the body."

A number of factors can affect one's chances of suffering from motion sickness, Julie A. Honaker, PhD, CCC-A, director of the Vestibular and Balance Disorders Program at Cleveland Clinic, tells Health. "A history of migraines [or other types of] headaches, family history of motion sickness, hormonal changes, even other inner ear or neurological disorders can cause someone to experience motion sickness," Honaker says. According to MedlinePlus, motion sickness is also more common in pregnant women and children.

What Are the Symptoms of Motion Sickness?

According to MedlinePlus, the following can be symptoms of motion sickness:

  • Pale skin
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Hyperventilation (rapid breathing)
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Restlessness

Different people experience motion sickness symptoms differently, Honaker says. "Motion sickness can vary in severity from person to person but typically people will report nausea and sometimes vomiting," she says, adding that the same goes for motion sickness triggers: "For instance, a short car ride may only bring on slight symptoms of uneasiness, while a long car ride on a curvy road may bring on significant nausea [and] vomiting."

How Can You Treat Motion Sickness—and What Can You Do To Prevent It?

The good news is, there are many ways to calm motion sickness or, if you know you're prone to it, prevent the condition before you settle in for a long car or plane ride. "There's a range of things we recommend," Dr. Goldberg says.

1. Plan Ahead

If you know you're going on a long car ride or taking a boat out on the lake later, try to avoid any heavy, greasy meals. This can upset your stomach even when you're not traveling, and it might add insult to injury if you start getting nauseous from motion sickness.

2. Change Your POV

If you're traveling and start to feel a little off, Dr. Goldberg suggests changing your focal point, or where your eyes are looking while you're moving. A stationary object can help, he says—that means if you're on a boat, keep an eye on the horizon (aka, where the sky meets the water); if you're in a car, focus on a far-away landmark.

3. Don't Multitask

You may think that distracting yourself with a good book or TV show can help your motion sickness, but it's actually the opposite. Honaker says that it's important to make sure you're looking straight ahead, and that reading or scrolling through the news on your phone might worsen symptoms.

The best-case scenario here: Offer to drive (if you're capable). "Many individuals with motion sickness do better on long trips when they are the driver," Honaker says.

4. Try to Sleep Through It

This isn't a cop-out: If you're truly suffering from motion sickness, try to treat travel as a way to rest and recharge—or at least an opportunity to shut your eyes. According to Honaker, closing your eyes works to "eliminate visual input interacting with sensory input telling your body that you are in motion."

5. Consider Medication

If the above tricks don't work, it might be time to consider medications that can counteract the effects of motion sickness, Dr. Goldberg says. However, you should definitely have a conversation with your doctor beforehand. "It is always best to consult with your doctor or pharmacist before trying any new medication even if over the counter," Honaker warns.

Dr. Goldberg says your doctor might recommend one of two medications if you suffer from motion sickness: Dimenhydrinate (aka Dramamine), which is commonly used to treat nausea, or Benadryl, a medication commonly used to treat allergies. "The downside [is that] they can be a little sedating," Dr. Goldberg says.

If you know you're going to be traveling for a very long time—for instance, if you're going on a cruise or flying to Australia—and you suffer from motion sickness often, your doctor might suggest something called a scopolamine patch, which is placed behind the ear and can prevent vomiting and nausea brought on by motion sickness.

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