What causes motion sickness—and how can you prevent it?

For some travelers, a catamaran sail off Oahu, Hawaii, or a camel ride through the desert in Morocco is not an enviable vacation experience. It’s an encounter with nausea, dizziness, and cold sweats.

Motion sickness like this can happen to almost anyone, including children and dogs. Studies suggest that more than half of all people who ride in cars experience carsickness. Recent surveys of members of the Indian Navy, Icelandic fishermen, and South Carolina marine biologists indicate that up to 80 percent of individuals who work on boats get seasick sometimes.

“We’re even seeing cybersickness now, with people looking at their phones when riding in the car or wearing glasses for a 3D movie,” says Andrea Bubka, a professor of psychology at Saint Peter’s University in New Jersey, who has extensively studied motion sickness.

Here’s why motion sickness happens and what travelers can do to prevent it.

What causes it

Scientists aren’t sure why some people feel nauseated the second they step on a boat, while others can blithely read long novels while riding in the backseat of a car. But they have a few theories.

Many scholars believe motion sickness is caused by sensory conflict, a discrepancy between what people see and what their bodies are experiencing. “Human beings did not evolve to travel in space shuttles and use virtual-reality video games,” says Marcello Cherchi, a neurologist at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Sensory conflict happens when your body feels the heaving of an ocean ferry or the jolting motion of a bus winding through the mountains and your eyes, ears, and other senses can’t catch up. This results in symptoms like a dry mouth, dizziness, upset stomach, or a pounding headache.

However, other scientists believe that people get motion sickness because they don’t instinctively change how they sit, stand, or walk in a moving mode of transport. That disconnect causes you to feel ill.


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