Why Some People Get Air Sick When Flying: A blog about common airplane myths
What is it about flying that bothers some people? Is it the turbulence, the altitude or something else entirely?
We asked Dr. Nicolas Langeraert, an aerospace physician and member of the Aerospace Medical Association (AsMA), to explain what exactly it is that causes motion sickness in airplanes, why some people get sick on flights and others don’t and how to deal with this problem if you struggle with it.
Understanding what causes motion sickness
You might have seen it before: someone starts feeling queasy on a flight and soon afterwards, they’re begging for a plastic bag. What’s happening here?
Motion sickness is caused by repeated small movements that upset your body’s balance. These movements occur when you’re in a moving vehicle like an airplane. “If you are exposed to a certain movement of the airplane or even turbulence while not being able to see these movements, then your inner ear will sense them,” explains Dr. Langeraert. “Then your brain will receive mixed messages from your eyes and ears and this will cause motion sickness.”
Interestingly enough, there are only very few cases where people actually feel sick when looking out of the window of an aircraft when flying above
The reason why some people get air sick when flying is due to their brain having different information from what the inner ear is feeling. The inner ear feels the motion of the plane, the nose and throat feel pressure changes when flying, but the eyes see a stable environment.
When you are driving in a car, your eyes see trees moving past and signs changing as you go by. This helps your brain understand how fast you are moving and in what direction. If you close your eyes while driving down a road, your other senses will take over for your eyes.
In an airplane, however, your brain does not have these visual cues to help it reconcile different feelings from your inner ear and other senses. This causes confusion in your brain which can lead to air sickness.
Many people wonder why some people get air sick when flying and others don’t. While it may seem to be a simple question, the answer is actually extremely complex. There are many different reasons why some people are more susceptible to motion sickness than others, and there are also many different ways that the sensation of motion can be interpreted by your body.
The short answer is that most of the time we feel motion because our vestibular system (the inner ear) senses movement while our eyes are not detecting any movement at all. This information then gets sent to our brain where we interpret this as motion sickness.
As you may know, your ears detect both rotation and linear acceleration in three dimensions. When you rotate or accelerate quickly, the fluid inside your inner ear lags behind and pushes against the walls of the chambers. The hairs that line those chambers respond to this stimulus by sending a signal to your brain. Your brain interprets this signal as movement in a particular direction.
Some people who get motion sick on planes also have problems with carsickness and seasickness, which means that their brains have trouble interpreting these conflicting signals from their ears and eyes. As an example, if you look out the window of an airplane as it takes off or lands, you could
For some people, the act of traveling through turbulent air in a small plane is extremely uncomfortable. For others, it is no problem at all. So why do some people get air sick when flying and others don’t?
How Does Air Sickness Work?
Air sickness is caused by a disconnect between the inner ear and other parts of the body. When we are in motion, our vestibular system (the inner ear) senses movement and sends messages to the brain about how we are moving relative to gravity. Our eyes and muscles also send messages about how we are moving. When all three systems agree, we feel fine. But when there is a discrepancy between what the ear senses and what our other senses perceive, we can experience motion sickness.
Why Do Some People Get Air Sickness?
Some people are more prone to motion sickness than others. It’s not really clear why this is true, though scientists suspect that genetic factors may play a role. Women are more likely to get air sick than men, as are children ages 2-12. If you or your child has experienced car sickness before, you’re more likely to get air sick as well.
There’s even some evidence that certain personality traits may make a person more susceptible to motion sickness: high
This is a myth that even some professional pilots believe. The fact is that the air in the cabin of an airplane is cleaner than the air you breathe in your home or office because it passes through high efficiency filters. The risk of getting sick from breathing recycled air on an airplane is no greater than the risk of getting sick from breathing recycled air in a classroom or office building.
Cabin air is actually more sterile than most places on earth because of how it’s filtered. But, there are still risks involved with flying, namely turbulence and motion sickness.
The seatbelt sign lights up for a reason: turbulence is dangerous and can cause injuries, especially if you’re not buckled in. It also can cause aircraft to malfunction or crash if it’s severe enough. Turbulence causes about 50 injuries to people each year, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). And while most turbulence injuries are minor, they can be serious.
“Most people think that turbulence cannot really hurt them,” says John Hansman, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. “But there have been cases where people have been pretty seriously injured by turbulence.”
There’s also motion sickness, which affects about half of all fliers. But don’t
For some people, flying is a very pleasant experience. For others, it can be an uncomfortable one. In fact, some people get so sick they prefer to not fly at all. Why do some people get sick?
Myth: It’s a psychological condition
Fact: You can’t control your symptoms
For some people, the idea of flying causes anxiety. Having anxiety about flying can lead to negative thoughts about flying, which can make your discomfort worse. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy where you “expect” to feel awful because you think you will and then you do feel awful because your mind convinces you that you should. But there are other factors that contribute to this discomfort, many of which are not psychological in nature.
Myth: You’re just afraid of falling out of the sky
Fact: Your inner ear gets confused
There is a system in your body called the vestibular system that uses fluid in your inner ear as well as tiny hairs in order to tell your brain what position your head is in relative to gravity. Certain parts of this system can also be used to detect movement. The problem is that when you go up and down or side to side in an airplane, these systems don’t sense the normal amount of
One of the first things that you may have been told when becoming a pilot is that you will never get airsick. You may have been told that because of your knowledge of how flight works, you would be immune to the effects of motion sickness.
This is not true.
The truth is that many pilots suffer from motion sickness on a daily basis and are just as susceptible to it as the rest of the population. There are many factors that can contribute to motion sickness in an aircraft.
The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, but it’s believed to be related to a mismatch between what our inner ears sense and what we see with our eyes, sending mixed signals to our brains.