Home Diseases Travel sickness (motion sickness): cause, symptoms, treatment

Travel sickness (motion sickness): cause, symptoms, treatment

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 408 views

Travel sickness (kinetosis) is the name given to a group of symptoms caused by disturbances in the sense of balance: Triggered by movement stimuli, such as those that occur during a car ride or a flight, those affected experience dizziness, nausea to the point of vomiting, headaches and pale skin. Read what happens in the body when you get motion sickness and what you can do about it.

ICD codes for this disease:

ICD codes are internationally valid codes for medical diagnoses. They can be found, for example, in doctor’s letters or on certificates of incapacity for work.


Motion sickness: description

Travel sickness is a widespread and harmless phenomenon, which can, however, be very stressful for those affected. The technical term “kinetosis” is derived from the Greek word for moving ( kinein ). Because it is the movement stimulus in a moving car or ship or an airplane in the air that causes problems for people with motion sickness.

For example, if someone is on a rattling tour bus or traveling in a car on a winding mountain road, this movement can upset their sense of balance and trigger symptoms such as nausea.

Depending on the type of transport, there are different types of motion sickness :

  • Seasickness is widespread  it can set in on a moving ship or other watercraft.
  • Land sickness refers to people who develop symptoms of motion sickness after a sea voyage as soon as they stand on solid ground again. Even the jetty seems to sway because the body is still adjusted to the wave movements on the ship. Sailors who have spent a long time on a ship have this experience in particular.
  • Airsickness , which causes those affected to feel nauseous on air travel, is rather rare. Sometimes it occurs in combination with a fear of flying (aviophobia), both of which can reinforce each other.
  • Space sickness can occur in astronauts. Kinetosis is triggered here by the lack of gravity in space – many astronauts then feel nauseous and dizzy.

Apart from that, you can also get nauseous, for example, when riding a camel or in a high-rise building that is slightly swaying in the wind.

Pseudo-kinetosis is when motion sickness is caused by a flight simulator, a computer game or a 3D cinema . In this case there is no “real” relevant movement, only the impression through the eyes.


You can find out how seasickness manifests itself and what you can do about it in the article Seasickness .

Why does motion sickness affect some people more than others?

How strong the stimulus has to be to trigger motion sickness varies from person to person.

Among adults, women are more likely to be affected by motion sickness than men. Doctors assume that the hormonal balance plays a role here, because women often show symptoms of motion sickness more quickly than usual during their menstrual period and during pregnancy.

Animals can also get travel sickness: not only do some dogs get sick in the car, but even fish can get seasick if they are transported in a swaying aquarium.

Motion sickness: symptoms

Motion sickness may vary in severity. In the early stages, only mild symptoms of motion sickness are noticeable: those affected often feel tired and often have to yawn, produce more saliva and may get a slight headache.

The following symptoms are usually referred to as classic motion sickness:

  • headache
  • sweats
  • nausea and vomiting
  • dizziness
  • paleness
  • accelerated breathing (hyperventilation)

In this condition, blood pressure drops and heart rate increases (tachycardia). However, those affected usually recover from motion sickness relatively quickly as soon as the brain can reconcile the various sensory impressions.

In rare cases, motion sickness can take on dangerous proportions, for example if severe nausea with vomiting lasts for days and the person concerned loses large amounts of water and salts (electrolytes) as a result. Some also feel very weak and are downright apathetic. Motion sickness rarely leads to circulatory collapse.

Motion sickness: causes and risk factors

Travel sickness can be caused by a variety of things, from a swaying ship to going into space. Doctors assume that the reason for this is a conflict between different sensory impressions :

The body has to constantly coordinate conscious and unconscious movements in order to keep its balance. In order to estimate its exact position in space, it draws on information from the various sensory organs:

  • The balance organ (vestibular apparatus) in the inner ear registers all rotary movements of the head via the semicircular canals. On the other hand, the so-called otolith organs (sacculus and utriculus) perceive the horizontal and vertical movements in space. Small receptor cells (hair cells) register every change in the various sections of the balance organ and send this information as electrical signals to the brain via the relevant nerves.
  • The so-called proprioceptors also send signals to the brain. They are mainly located in the muscles and tendons and “measure” their respective stretching status. The nerves work together so well that a person can, for example, coordinate their arms exactly parallel with their eyes closed.
  • The eyes represent the third important source of information for the brain when it comes to locating the body in space. For example, the brain is accustomed to the horizon, the floor, and the top of a table being a horizontal axis of orientation; Walls, poles and lamp posts, on the other hand, are usually vertical. This visual impression plays a crucial role in motion sickness.

All of this information, which the brain receives from the sensory cells, is normally put together into a meaningful three-dimensional image. In certain situations, however, the information is contradictory – for example when the eyes perceive that one is sitting still and looking at a city map (eg as a passenger in a car), while the vestibular system reports fluctuations and vibrations. This creates the feeling of motion sickness.

Risk factors for motion sickness

Various factors make you more susceptible to motion sickness:

  • diseases like migraines
  • alcohol consumption
  • Anxiety (e.g. fear of flying or fear of motion sickness itself)
  • pregnancy
  • Menstruation

Motion sickness: investigations and diagnosis

In the case of motion sickness, the diagnosis is usually unequivocal, especially since the symptoms occur in characteristic situations – for example during a sea voyage or car journey – and usually also repeatedly. In the case of mild and moderate symptoms, those affected often do not see a doctor because they or their fellow travelers can categorize them themselves.

In the case of severe symptoms, however, it is important for the treatment that a doctor clarifies the precise background and ensures that it is actually the consequences of motion sickness and not an infection or poisoning (differential diagnosis). When traveling long-distance, it is always advisable to think of travel sickness in the sense of tropical diseases, for example, if symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and sweating occur.

In order to rule out other diseases, the doctor asks the person concerned or accompanying persons about the exact circumstances. He also inquires whether any medication has been taken and whether the problem of motion sickness has been known for a long time. In some cases, a physical examination and blood tests are also necessary to rule out other diseases.

Motion sickness: treatment

The treatment of motion sickness is usually the easier the sooner you do something about the unpleasant symptoms.

general tips

So you should take countermeasures at the very first sign, such as a slight headache and increased salivation: Direct your gaze out of the vehicle into the distance – for example when driving, ideally at the road in front of you or at the horizon. This provides your eyes with a fixed orientation. Glasses are now even available with a movable bar that acts as an artificial horizon for the eyes.

Reading while driving or using your cell phone, for example, can increase the symptoms of motion sickness. Therefore, try to refrain from such activities.

If you are already nauseous, if possible, lie flat on your back and close your eyes. In general, it is often helpful with motion sickness to spend as much of the travel time as possible sleeping. During sleep, the sense of balance is largely switched off and visual impressions are lost.

Ginger can help against nausea, for example in the form of freshly brewed ginger tea. You can also chew a piece of fresh ginger root.

Travel sickness medication

If necessary, medication against motion sickness can also be used with active ingredients such as scopolamine, dimenhydrinate or cinnarizine (in combination with dimehydrinate). The preparations are available in the form of patches, tablets or chewing gum.

Many motion sickness medications are very tiring and slow down reactions. Therefore, you should not drive after taking it. Also, not all of the medicines mentioned are suitable for children. It is best to seek advice from your doctor or pharmacist before you travel.

Motion sickness: disease course and prognosis

Motion sickness can occur at any time, even if a person has never had it before. For some, the typical symptoms only become noticeable in phases.

Children between the ages of two and twelve get travel sickness most easily. Babies’ sense of balance is not yet so developed that movement stimuli could disturb them. By adolescence, most people become less sensitive to jerking, rocking, or swaying, and people over the age of 50 rarely experience motion sickness.

Motion sickness: prevention

If you are prone to motion sickness, it is best to prevent the impending nausea before departure or departure. With the following simple measures you can completely avoid motion sickness or at least mitigate it:

  • Eat a light, non-fatty meal before you travel. A fruit salad or a sandwich, for example, is a good choice.
  • Do not drink alcohol – not even the day before. Avoid caffeine if possible, or at least limit yourself to a small cup of coffee or black tea.
  • Whenever possible, get behind the wheel yourself when traveling by car. A driver doesn’t usually feel nauseous – presumably because he keeps his eyes constantly on the road ahead.
  • If possible, choose a seat in the direction of travel on buses and trains, preferably a window seat. In the car, the front passenger seat is a good place, in the coach, the front row of seats with a view of the road. A seat in the middle of a bus can also help – the pendulum movements are the least here.
  • On an airplane, it can help to sit level with the wings. Here, an aisle seat is often the better choice, as many people with motion sickness benefit from walking up and down the aisle every now and then.
  • Motion sickness medication is usually most effective when used at least 30 to 60 minutes before travel. It is best to follow the recommendations on the package insert or ask the pharmacist.

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