Air sickness

If you’ve ever been sick to your stomach on a rocking boat or a bumpy airplane ride, you know the discomfort of motion sickness.

Airsickness, a specific type of motion sickness, is a common ailment for many pilots and passengers. It is the motion sickness happening when you travel by air. It tends to happen more often early in flight training, as your body adjusts to the moving elements involved with flying an airplane. Many people get airsick when they first begin flying, but there are methods for overcoming it.

How common is airsickness?

Airsickness is extremely common. It commonly affects more females than males. It can affect patients at any age. It can be managed by reducing your risk factors. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.

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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.

There are some of the things that make you more susceptible to airsickness, such as:

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

Below are some common signs and symptoms of airsickness:

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

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

In general, all types of motion sickness, including airsickess, are diagnosed by the patient’s history and physical examination. The individual’s description of symptoms and the context in which they occur is most often sufficient to make the diagnosis. Laboratory testing is not generally required.

You can take medicine to prevent or reduce nausea and vomiting. These include:

  • Scopolamine, which comes as a patch you put behind your ear.
  • Medicines called antiemetics, which reduce nausea. Examples are ondansetron (Zofran) and prochlorperazine (Compazine).
  • Certain antihistamines, such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine) and meclizine (Antivert, Bonine). These may make you drowsy.

Some of these medicines require a prescription. Most work best if you take them before you travel.

You can try these things to alleviate the condition:

  • Get fresh air. Open the air vents and windows if possible. Try to cool off.
  • Look outside at the 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.
  • If you’re the pilot not flying and you’re skill level allows it, ask to take the controls. Focusing your attention on one thing can keep your mind off of feeling sick.

Try not to:

  • Read while flying
  • Put your head down
  • Focus too much on your airsickness. If you think you’ll be sick, you probably will be. Try to stay positive and focus on a specific task to keep your mind busy.
  • If you’re a pilot, 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 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.

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with 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. 

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