Why Do I Get Motion Sickness?

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on September 03, 2022
4 min read

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew about motion sickness. Even NASA has made note of it. So if you have this common ailment, you’re part of a long tradition.

There are ways to prevent or treat it to keep your travels or trip to the amusement park a pleasant one.

You get motion sickness when there are conflicts among your senses. Say you’re on a ride at the fair, and it’s spinning you around and upside down. Your eyes see one thing, your muscles feel another, and your inner ears sense something else.

Your brain can’t take in all those mixed signals. That’s why you end up feeling dizzy and sick.

Your inner ears, in particular, help control your sense of balance. They are part of a network called the vestibular system.

This system includes three pairs of semicircular canals and two sacs, called the saccule and the utricle. They send information about what’s going on around you to the brain.

The semicircular canals hold a fluid that moves with the turns of your head. The saccule and utricle are sensitive to gravity. They tell the brain whether you’re standing up or lying down.

Your brain takes in all this data, and it usually comes together and makes sense. But sometimes your brain gets confusing signals.

On a flying plane, for example, you feel like you’re moving, but your eyes tell your brain that you don’t appear to be going anywhere. The opposite is true as well. After a long sea voyage, you can stand still on dry land but still feel like you’re moving.

The result is the same: motion sickness.

Anybody can get motion sickness, but it’s most common in children and pregnant women. Unlike a cold, you can’t spread it to other people. It’s not contagious.

Motion sickness can strike quickly and make you break out in a cold sweat and feel like you need to throw up. Other common symptoms include:

In addition, some people get headaches, feel very tired, or have shallow breathing.

For most people, symptoms usually don’t last long. They often go away once you get used to the situation, whether it’s the rocking of a boat or the movement of a train.

But there are some simple things you can do if the motion sickness isn’t going away on its own:

  • Relax. Find something to focus on, whether it’s taking deep breaths or counting backwards from 100. Closing your eyes can help, too.
  • Look at a stable object. If you’re on a boat, look at the horizon. If you’re in a car, look through the windshield.
  • Avoid alcohol. Eat lightly before travel but don’t fast.
  • Breathe fresh air -- and don’t smoke.
  • Avoid reading.

If you can, get a seat over the wing if you’re flying, an upper-deck cabin if you’re sailing, or a front-seat spot if you’re in a car.

Some people feel like they get relief with these:

Raw ginger. There’s some scientific proof that this root, long used as a folk remedy to fight nausea, is effective. But it may act as a blood thinner. Talk to your doctor first before you use it.

Mint. Eating peppermint is thought to calm the body. At the very least, the aroma may soothe you.

Acupuncture and acupressure. Some people say that stimulating a certain point just below the wrist helps ease their nausea.

If you’re still bothered by motion sickness, you can talk to your doctor about these:

Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine). This over-the-counter antihistamine, used to ease allergies, helps with motion sickness, too. The first dose should be taken about an hour before traveling. More doses are taken every 4 to 6 hours.

Scopolamine (Maldemar). This is a prescription medication. Your wear a patch behind the ear. You apply it 4 hours before needed. A dose lasts 3 days.

Other drugs include:

All have side effects, including drowsiness and dry mouth.

Motion sickness usually goes away once the journey is over. But if you’re still dizzy, have a headache, continue to vomit, notice hearing loss or chest pain, call your doctor.