What causes car sickness?

By Katy Brodski-Quigley, MD, EdM Jun 08, 2022 • 3 min

Car sickness is a type of motion sickness that can affect people of all ages. The problem can occur in any type of vehicle. It can be useful to know exactly what causes car sickness so that it can be properly treated and prevented.

What causes car sickness?

Car sickness is caused by the difference between what your eyes see and what your inner ear perceives. For example, your eyes may see the smooth road ahead, but your inner ear signals that you are going up and down a lot. Or, you may have a smooth train ride and your body feels as if you are still, but your eyes see the trees quickly flashing by in the window. As a result, the brain is not sure what to make of these mixed signals, and this can lead to dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

Who gets car sick?

Children are especially prone to motion sickness. As people age, the condition becomes less common. Women are more affected by motion sickness than men due to hormonal differences and changes during pregnancy and menstruation.

Those who often experience nausea or vertigo from conditions like migraines, Meniere's disease or balance issues are at an increased risk for car sickness. 

Car sickness during pregnancy

Pregnant women are often affected by motion sickness, most likely because pregnancy changes a woman's hormonal state. In this case, it's best to discuss motion sickness with your gynecologist/obstetrician in advance, since not all medications are safe for use during pregnancy. Meclizine and dimenhydrinate are often prescribed to pregnant women.

There are multiple remedies available for motion sickness, including over-the-counter medications and prescription treatments. A pharmacist or your healthcare provider can advise you. If you develop motion sickness suddenly, or if your symptoms become more severe than before, it may be a sign of a different illness, and you should seek medical care. It's important to discuss those changes with your healthcare provider.

Published June 2022.

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