How to Prevent and Treat Motion Sickness While Flying

Woman sitting in airplane seat with symptoms of motion sickness holding her head.

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Airsickness, a specific type of motion sickness, is a common ailment for many pilots and passengers. It tends to happen more often early in flight training, as your body adjusts to the moving elements involved with flying an airplane. Passengers are also likely to get airsick since they often read or focus on objects inside the airplane.

If you're a new pilot or passenger experiencing airsickness when you fly, try not to become frustrated. Many people get airsick when they first begin flying, but there are methods for overcoming it. The good news is that most people go on to experience rewarding flying hobbies or careers.

The Causes of Airsickness

Airsickness is the result of the body's reaction to different signals it tries to interpret. While in a moving vessel, such as an airplane or a car, the vestibular system senses movement in one way while the brain interprets a lack of movement from what the eyes see.

While flying in an airplane, your eyes tend to adjust to the movement as if you're barely moving. Your body, specifically your inner ear, reacts to the actual movement in relation to gravity and tells your brain what it feels. The conflict of signals confuses the body, creating a feeling of nausea along with many other symptoms.

The Symptoms of Airsickness

  • Queasiness
  • Nausea
  • Fatigue
  • Chills
  • Sweating
  • Increased Salivation
  • Vomiting
  • Yawning
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • In severe cases, disorientation or incapacitation

Are You Susceptible to Airsickness? 

Some people are more susceptible to becoming airsick than others. For example, women and children seem to be more vulnerable to motion sickness, as well as new pilots and passengers not used to the flying environment. Pilots not flying the airplane (such as an instructor observing a student) might become sick while in the air since their attention isn't focused on flying. It has been found that paying attention to flight duties can prevent or relieve airsickness.

The FAA has published a list of things that can make a person more susceptible to becoming airsick. These coincide with the I'M SAFE checklist, and include the following:

  • Illness
  • Medication
  • Stress and Anxiety
  • Alcohol
  • Fatigue
  • Emotions
  • Anxiety

How to Prevent Airsickness

  • If you are susceptible to airsickness, start by flying a series of short flights close together to allow your body time to adjust to the motions involved with flying.
  • Eat a nutritious diet that is low in sodium and fat. Don't eat immediately before flying, but don't fly on an empty stomach, either.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Try to relieve any anxieties you might have about flying before you get into the airplane. If you're learning how to fly, study as much as you can before the flight. Showing up prepared will decrease your stress and anxiety level and might prevent a nervous stomach.
  • If you're a student pilot, talk to your instructor about your options. For example, instead of attempting the scheduled lesson on steep turns, maybe you could try a straight-and-level cross-country flight, while your body adjusts to the flying experience.
  • Natural remedies, such as ginger or pressure therapy can help in some cases, but these remedies aren't proven.

How to Alleviate Airsickness

Get fresh air by opening the overhead air vents—the windows on smaller aircraft if possible. Try to cool off by loosening clothing or focusing the airflow on your face. Look outside at a fixed point on the horizon and make all turns, climbs, and descents very shallow. Keep your head as still as possible

Use supplemental oxygen, if available. Also, if you're the pilot not flying pilot and are struggling and if your skill level allows, ask to take the controls. Focusing your attention on one thing can keep your mind off of feeling sick.

What Not to Do

If you're a pilot, don't take any medication for airsickness before flying. There are no FAA-approved medications or over-the-counter drugs that pilots are allowed to take before flying to treat airsickness. All nausea and motion sickness medications have side effects that can affect a pilot's mental state and judgment, as well as cause drowsiness.

If you are a pilot with a severe case of motion sickness, talk to your aviation medical examiner about your options. Also, don't forget to fly the airplane. If you're too sick to fly, land as soon as practical and get your feet on the ground.

If you're a passenger, don't read while flying and don't put your head down. Try not to focus on your airsickness. If you think you'll be sick, you probably will be. Try to stay positive and focus on specific tasks to keep your mind busy. Don't forget to take sick sacks with you.

Getting over airsickness can take some time, but if you are persistent and follow some of these guidelines, you have a good chance of conquering any motion sickness you may have in the beginning.