If you've ever taken a taxi in New York City, you know that a cab is really just a vessel in which to get carsick. There's something about feeling the jolts of stop-and-go city traffic, sitting in the backseat, gasping for a breath of fresh air, and having a small screen permanently in front of your face that can really make you want to barf. (Fun fact: If you do vomit inside of a cab, you have to pay a $60 cleaning fee. Would not recommend.)
Carsickness is a truly terrible sensation, but understanding a little bit about why it happens can help you figure out ways to prevent it. Nobody really knows what causes motion sickness, but it's thought to be caused by a "sensory conflict," says Maria Suurna, MD, an otolaryngologist at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. That means your body is trying to process the visual, vestibular (what's happening in your inner ear), and proprioceptive (how your body is in space) stimuli that you're experiencing — but they don't quite match up. Hence the nausea. "It usually occurs due to exposure to physical or visual motion," she says.
But why can some people survive car rides like it's no big deal, and others go green after a few blocks? In general, women and children tend to be more susceptible to motion sickness, Dr. Suurna says. Individuals who get migraines, or who have vestibular disorders that affect the inner ear, such as vertigo or Meniere's disease, also might be more prone to motion sickness. Some studies have shown that people who are sleep deprived tend to get more motion sick, possibly because it's harder for your body to adapt to its surroundings when you're tired. "Any person with a normally functional vestibular system can get motion sickness when exposed to a certain type of motion," she says.
Rotary, vertical, and slow motions are more likely to cause motion sickness than linear or rapid motions, Dr. Suurna says. "Being a passenger in the car, reading, looking at your phone, or sitting in the back also makes people more susceptible to motion sickness," she says. And that's why sitting in the back of a cab can be so miserable.
There's not a ton you can do to manage your carsick symptoms once they hit, so prevention is a better route, Dr. Suurna says. Ideally, you should sit in the front seat of the car, because it's the part of the vehicle with less motion, or offer to drive if you can (probably not going to fly in a cab). "Focusing on the horizon, or looking forward in the car can reduce the symptoms," she says. Using a neck pillow to keep your head still may also help, according to the Mayo Clinic. Eating light meals, staying hydrated, and taking naps might help, too, and greasy meals and alcohol can just make things worse. Already in the throes? Stick to dry crackers and carbonated beverages, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Some anti-motion sickness medications, such as Antivert or Dramamine, can help if you take them before you get in the car or as soon as you feel symptoms coming on, Dr. Suurna says. Mayo Clinic adds that your doctor may prescribe a patch called scopolamine, which you place behind your ear for 72 hours of protection.
"By definition, motion sickness is precipitated by motion," Dr. Suurna says. So you'll feel better, at the very least, when your road trip comes to an end. If you feel nauseous or drowsy all the time, that could be a sign that you have some other illness, so it's worth it to see a physician who can diagnose what's going on. Otherwise, unfortunately you just have to ride out the motion sickness until it goes away. At least, this time of year, there's a decent chance you have a fun vacation waiting for you at the other end.