What Causes Car Sickness? Can It Be Prevented?

what is car sickness motion sickness - prevention tips

Do you have to squint and focus on a fixed point to avoid feeling carsick? If you’ve ever felt sick to your stomach from a bumpy ride, you’re not alone. Nearly everyone has experienced some version of motion sickness before. Rough seas nearly guarantee it.

While the symptoms will eventually stop, they can make traveling extremely uncomfortable, for both you and the people around you. If you’re planning your next vacation, you may want to know what causes this distressing disorder and what you can do to prevent it.

First, let’s find out what motion sickness actually is and what causes it.

What is motion sickness?

Motion sickness, also called airsickness, seasickness, and carsickness, can occur in a variety of different situations. It is caused by a conflict of different messages that the brain receives. It has a lot to do with how your inner ear perceives balance and motion.

Everyone has both an inner ear and an outer ear. The inner ear helps us with sound detection and balance while the outer ear is mostly responsible for hearing.

diagram of internal ear - motion sickness vestibular system

Source: Blausen.com staff (2014). “Medical Gallery of Blausen Medical 2014“. 

The cochlea helps convert sound pressures from the outer ear to electrochemical impulses that get passed on to the brain.

The vestibular system provides us with the sense of balance and space orientation necessary for coordinating movements (including position and acceleration) from second to second.

While you may already know that your inner ear is responsible for balance, you may not be aware that there are two different types of equilibrium:

Static Equilibrium is when the body is not moving. Receptors in the vestibular system send reports to the brain on the position of the head with respect to gravity when the body is not moving.

Dynamic Equilibrium is when the body is moving. Receptors pick up angular or rotary movements of the head and then send messages to your brain when there are any sudden movements. If you are moving at a constant rate, receptors will stop sending movement impulses to the brain. Impulses will start up again when you change speed or direction.

So, what does all of this have to do with feeling carsick?

If you are on a boat, car, or train, your eyes look around and experience mostly a static world. Your eyes notice that your body is just sitting there, not moving, and part of your vestibular system is corroborating the visual information. You also have pressure and sensory receptors on nerve endings that can contribute to the mixed messaging, called your proprioceptors.

Basically, your brain gets confused because it is receiving mixed signals from your visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive systems about your body and its position in space. Homeostasis gets upset and your body reacts as it would to toxins.

While your eyes are telling your brain that there is static equilibrium, the equilibrium receptors in the semicircular canals in your ear are crying out—MOVEMENT!

Both parts of your equilibrium system are sending contradictory messages to your brain. The brain, as the ultimate decision-maker, decides it’s going to do something—vomit.

Now that you know how the ears and eyes contribute to motion sickness, you can see why ear infections can produce nausea and dizziness. The ear infection messes up the equilibrium receptors and signals going to the brain.

You may also experience a similar motion sickness with flight simulators, video games, movies, microscopes, and even computers and smart phones. Sometimes, the term cybersickness is given to motion sickness associated with digital media.

Why does the driver rarely get carsick?

While the theoretical explanations are not entirely clear, there is a clear link between control of movement and the experience of motion sickness. The more control you have over the movement, the less motion sickness you feel.

How to Prevent Motion Sickness

Although there are many different remedies available, none are proven effective for everyone. It’s a matter of trial and error.

If you frequently experience motion sickness, try some of these common remedies to feel more comfortable.

  • If you are prone to motion sickness, limit your food intake before the trip. Don’t eat any spicy or greasy foods. If it’s a short trip, don’t eat anything except perhaps a small snack, such as crackers.
  • Stop the motion if you can and wait it out.
  • Remove one of the equilibrium signals going to your brain—close your eyes.
  • Focus on the horizon, giving your brain a static point of reference.
  • Don’t read or use phones and electronics. Limit your sensory input.
  • Distract yourself by singing songs, listening to music, and playing car games.
  • Sometimes air ventilation helps. Try opening up a window and getting rid of any strong odors. Again, limit as many sensory inputs as you can.
  • Some people recommend consuming some ginger (about 2 grams half an hour before travel) to help with motion sickness. While we don’t know if it helps any, it certainly can’t hurt.
  • If all else fails, use medication; but make sure to read to instructions and consult a doctor for any over-the-counter prescriptions. Take the medication before your trip. Antihistamine solutions include dimenhydrinate (Dramamine, TripTone), diphenhydramine (Benadryl), meclizine (Bonine), promethazine (Phenergan), chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), and others. Be forewarned that many of these medications cause drowsiness and other side effects. Follow instructions carefully.

Usually, motion sickness subsides after around age 12. If you are driving with someone who is feeling carsick, pull the car over as soon as you can and have them walk around or lie down with their eyes closed.

Learn more tips and tricks before heading out on your next long car trip:


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