Nausea: What Causes It and What You Can Do

Mary Lucas, RN

Medically reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Our Editorial Team

Last updated 11/24/2020

You can call it whatever you want. Feeling “sick to your stomach,” being “under the weather,” feeling like you’re “gonna spew” (any fans in the house?). The reality is that they’re all terms for one terrible feeling — nausea. 

Being nauseous for whatever reason is possibly  one of the worst feelings, and while vomiting often relieves this abdominal discomfort or wooziness (at least temporarily), it doesn’t always mean the end of your underlying ailment. 

Whether you get nauseous every time you're in the passenger side of a vehicle, or it’s a rare occurrence that happens only when you take certain medications, knowing how to soothe yourself and when to call for help is important. 

Related Symptoms of Nausea 

Nausea is itself a symptom, and it may be accompanied by other common symptoms

For example, if you’re nauseous, you’re not likely to want to eat, so a lack of appetite is a related symptom. 

You may also experience sweating, retching (or the contraction of your respiratory and abdominal muscles), stomach pains or aches and a feeling best described as “icky” in your throat or chest.

Depending on what’s causing your nausea, a whole host of other symptoms could be present. 

If it’s caused by a serious condition, the nausea can be one of many clues as to what’s wrong. 

In fact, these symptoms could help you and/or your health care provider determine what’s causing your illness.

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Nausea Causes 

Numerous things can cause nausea — from an amusement park ride, to a common gastrointestinal virus or a serious illness. The conditions under which you experience the nausea along with any related symptoms may help you determine the cause. 

Here are a few of the more common causes of nausea: 

  • Food poisoning 

  • Stomach flu or gastroenteritis

  • Food allergies

  • Pregnancy, morning sickness 

  • Motion sickness

  • Migraine headaches 

  • Severe pain 

  • Medical treatment side effects such as chemotherapy or radiation therapy

  • GERD (gastroesophageal reflux), which you may experience as heartburn or indigestion 

  • Appendicitis

  • Head injury

  • Meningitis

  • Digestive blockage or intestinal obstruction 

  • Ingestion of a toxin 

  • Ulcers

  • Pancreatitis 

  • Drugs and alcohol

  • Brain tumors

Of course, this list is not exhaustive. There are tons of things that can cause nausea, but these are a few of the most common.

Nausea Complications 

Nausea is the bad, queasy feeling that sometimes precedes vomiting, and while the feeling itself may not have many complications, the vomiting does. 

You should contact a healthcare professional if you have reason to believe your nausea is caused by food poisoning, if you’ve been vomiting for more than 24 hours, if your vomit has blood in it or if you’re also experiencing severe abdominal, head or neck pain. 

You should also contact a healthcare professional if your nausea is persistent and you cannot identify what is causing it.

One of the more common and serious complications of nausea and vomiting is dehydration. Signs of dehydration may include dry mouth, thirst, sunken eyes, inability to produce tears, skin changes or dark yellow urine. 

Chronic nausea can also cause undernutrition and weight loss, so if you’re unable to keep food down for more than a day, contact your healthcare provider.

Nausea Treatments 

Most often, treating nausea involves addressing the cause. For example, if your nausea is caused by motion sickness, you can try taking an over-the-counter motion sickness medication such as dimenhydrinate (also known as Dramamine®). 

If your nausea is disruptive and serious, your healthcare provider may prescribe anti-nausea medications or have you drink electrolytes to replenish what you lost when vomiting. 

In very extreme cases of chronic nausea, healthcare professionals may recommend nutrition therapy, or working with a professional to help identify foods that don’t trigger nausea. Intravenous nutrition and/or tube feeding is saved for people who simply aren’t getting the nutrients or electrolytes they need to survive by mouth.

Home remedies for nausea are common and generally attempt to settle the stomach. 

For example ginger ale or chamomile tea may be a first choice, or foods that are bland and less likely to upset an already upset stomach. 

Crackers, bananas or plain rice may help if your nausea is worse when you’re hungry. This is sometimes the case with “morning sickness” — the nausea that accompanies early pregnancy. 

Also frequent small meals may provide some relief. 

It’s important to stay hydrated when you’re nauseous, so drink small amounts of clear liquids as tolerated. 

Over-the-counter medications designed to soothe stomach issues like nausea, such as antacids and bismuth (e.g.Pepto-Bismol®), may help too.

Preventing Nausea

While there’s no definitive way to prevent nausea from happening, one of the best things you can do if you experience nausea constantly is figure out what triggers it and do your best to avoid those triggers. 

That said, here are some common things you can do to help prevent nausea to begin with. Some of them have been mentioned above, but they’re all good suggestions:

  • Stick to smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day to avoid making your stomach feel full.

  • If your nausea is consistent, try keeping a food diary to help identify potentially triggering foods.

  • If your nausea is a result of motion sickness, do what you can to avoid triggering it while in moving vehicles. That includes things like not reading in a moving vehicle, sitting closer to the wings of the plane if you’re flying or sitting closer to the center of a boat if boating is your thing.

  • Try to avoid alcohol or other substances whose common side effects include dizziness, nausea or vomiting.

  • Avoid strong odors — things like smoke, perfumes or even certain cooking smells can trigger nausea, depending on why you get nauseous.

  • Speaking of food, try to avoid food that looks or smells like it has gone bad or spoiled.

  • If you’re taking medications — yes, even medications to treat nausea and vomiting — follow the instructions on the bottle or as prescribed by your healthcare provider, and generally try not to consume them with alcohol or things that may wind up making you more nauseous.

While many of these suggestions may seem like common sense, making a concerted effort to put these suggestions into practice can go a long way toward helping prevent nausea. 

In Conclusion

Nausea, while a condition best to be avoided on its own, is also a symptom of many other illnesses or health issues — from the relatively benign to the outright dangerous. 

The best thing to do in order to help prevent nausea is learning what triggers it in you, and learning how to avoid those triggers. 

However, in instances where your nausea can’t easily be avoided, there are medications out there that can help you treat it when it does arise.

That said, as always, whether you’re experiencing nausea on a consistent basis, or are just trying to understand what causes those sporadic episodes, the best thing to do if you can’t figure it out on your own is reach out to your healthcare provider. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

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