UNC Health Care
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Is Motion Sickness Making Travel a Nightmare?

Traveling can be fun for the whole family, until you start feeling queasy. Motion sickness and the resulting nausea and vomiting can happen on any moving vessel, from cars and trains to boats and planes.

“Some people get warm and clammy; some people just feel sick,” says medical director Heather Anderson, MD, of UNC Primary Care at Cary.

But what is motion sickness exactly?

“Motion sickness is essentially a miscommunication between your ears, your eyes and your sensory motor system,” Dr. Anderson says. “Your eyes are telling you that you’re not moving, but your ears are telling you that you are.”

The inner ear is responsible for telling your brain when you are in motion. When your eyes can’t detect motion while you are in transit—for example, when you’re staring at an iPad right in front of your face—motion sickness can result.

So how do you treat it?

“If you’re thinking about treatment, you’re already too late,” Dr. Anderson says. “The best thing to combat motion sickness is prevention. Because once it comes on, it can make you curl up like no one’s business.”

You can prevent and treat motion sickness symptoms in yourself or your kids with medications, behavioral changes and home remedies.

Treating Motion Sickness with Medications

Some over-the-counter medications prevent or improve motion sickness. They should be taken about half an hour before a trip begins to be most effective. Some people dislike these medications because they have side effects such as drowsiness, urine retention and dry mouth.

Over-the-counter medications for motion sickness include:

  • Diphenhydramine (Benadryl)
  • Dimenhydrinate (Dramamine)
  • Meclizine (Bonine)
  • Scopolamine

These medications each have their own directions, which you should follow closely. Talk to a doctor before taking these medications or giving them to your loved ones.

Behavioral Changes for Preventing Motion Sickness

Depending on the kind of transportation you’re using, there are things you can do to prevent motion sickness or lessen its effects. This usually involves taking a strategic location on the vessel and being mindful about where you look while in transit.

“Where you sit matters,” Dr. Anderson says.

Here’s where you should locate yourself to prevent or reduce motion sickness:

  • Boat: Stay on the deck if possible, where your eyes will be able to detect the motion your ears are feeling.
  • Car: Avoid the back seat. The front passenger seat is good. Driving is best because you’re involved in the movement of the car, which means your eyes are engaged in the motion your ears sense.
  • Bus or train: Don’t take a backward-facing seat. Sit facing the direction in which the bus or train is moving so the forward motion your eyes perceive matches the forward motion your ears sense.
  • Plane: Sit above the wing. This is the most stable part of the plane during turbulence.

Look out to the horizon when possible. By focusing on the horizon, you’re increasing your field of vision, seeing everything in your environment. On a boat, for example, looking at the horizon means your eyes understand that you’re on a boat that’s moving up and down, which matches the signals your inner ear is sending to your brain.

It’s important to perceive your whole environment. Being on the deck of the boat is great, but if you’re on the deck and focusing on your phone, you’re not using your whole visual field and you’re still likely to experience symptoms of motion sickness.

Dr. Anderson offers some final words of advice: “Keep ginger candy or lozenges with you during travel. The bonus is that ginger is delicious.”

Ginger has been shown to reduce the queasiness associated with motion sickness. Peppermint gum helps some people feel better, too.


If motion sickness is bothering you or your loved one, talk to your doctor.