What is Motion Sickness? Causes, symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, complications, and prevention

Motion sickness or travel sickness is a common condition that millions of people have when traveling by car, boat, train, or plane. There is a disconnect between what you see with your eyes and what your inner ear senses.

Some people experience motion sickness at amusement parks, especially if they go on the most daring or scariest rides.

People who get carsick, seasick, or airsick suffer from motion sickness when traveling by car, boat, or plane, respectively.

According to the Cleveland Clinic:

“The condition causes cold sweats, nausea, and vomiting. Women and children are more prone to motion sickness, but it can affect anyone. You can take steps while traveling to reduce your risk of getting sick.”

Causes of motion sickness

Our eyes, inner ear, and other parts of the body send signals to the brain about motion and the position of our bodies. Your inner ear may sense movement in a moving car. However, if your eyes are focused on something inside the car which isn’t moving relative to you, the brain receives conflicting signals.

Experts believe that this conflict – our inner ear says we are moving while our eyes say we aren’t – causes motion sickness.

Signs and symptoms

Why is nausea a symptom while vomiting is a sign? A symptom is something that only the patient is aware of, while a sign is something that the patient and others can see, observe, sense, or detect.

The signs and symptoms of motion sickness include:

  • A feeling of uneasiness (first symptom).
  • Cold sweats.
  • Dizziness, vertigo.
  • Nausea, and sometimes vomiting too.
  • Increased salivation.
  • Burping.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Headache.
  • Yawning and feeling sleepy.
  • A general feeling of discomfort.
  • Panting or gulping for air. Hyperventilation may cause faintness.
  • Pale skin.
  • Irritability.
  • Fatigue.

When the sufferer leaves the vehicle, their symptoms tend to subside. Fortunately, most people on long journeys, such as on a ship, adapt to the motion.

The text below comes from the MSD Manual (Consumer Version):

“Motion sickness is more common among women and children between 2 and 12 years of age, as well as in people who are susceptible to migraines, people who have labyrinthitis, or those who are pregnant or use hormonal contraceptives. Fear, anxiety, and poor ventilation increase the likelihood of experiencing motion sickness. Genetic factors may also increase susceptibility.”

Motion sickness - several images depicting sea sickness, car sickness, and air sickness 222.jpg

Image created by MedicalVocab.com.

Diagnosis of motion sickness

Most people self-diagnose. You can tell if you have motion sickness based on your symptoms and your situation. The same applies to your children, family members, or fellow passengers.

If you experience some of the signs and symptoms mentioned in this article regularly, i.e., whenever you travel, you should talk to your doctor. They may ask about your symptoms, when they happen, and order some tests to rule out other conditions.


OTC medications such as Bonine and Dramamine may help reduce symptoms. You should take them BEFORE your journey. They are both antihistamines, which may cause dizziness, drowsiness, and reduced mental alertness. The letters OTC stand for over the counter. You can get OTC medications without a doctor’s prescription.

If your symptoms are severe, your doctor may prescribe a stronger medication, such as scopolamine. Scopolamine may cause dizziness, disorientation, drowsiness, sweating, and sore throat.

Many people say that ginger, acupressure bands, and certain types of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) have helped them. Most articles related to alternative therapies provide anecdotal evidence, which means they have not been backed up by rigorous scientific studies.

Before you try any new treatments, you should talk to your doctor or a qualified pharmacist.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the following about treatment:

“Medicines can be used to prevent or treat motion sickness, although many of them cause drowsiness. Talk to a healthcare professional to decide if you should take medicines for motion sickness. Commonly used medicines are diphenhydramine (Benadryl), dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), and scopolamine.”


Complications from motion sickness are extremely rare. It can make traveling uncomfortable, and in some extreme cases, virtually impossible.

If somebody has severe symptoms and vomits a lot, there is a risk of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance.

Prevention of motion sickness

Try sitting shotgun (in the front of a car) or over the wings of a plane. Remember that motion is minimal in the middle of a ship.

While traveling, look at a stationary object, such as the horizon. Eat light meals and avoid alcohol completely before you travel.

What works for one person may not work for another. Try different methods to see which ones are the most effective for you.