What Causes Nausea?

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA

Nausea is pronounced stomach discomfort and the sensation of wanting to vomit. Nausea can be a precursor to vomiting the contents of the stomach. The condition has many causes and can often be prevented. Read More

Nausea is pronounced stomach discomfort and the sensation of wanting to vomit. Nausea can be a precursor to vomiting the contents of the stomach. The condition has many causes and can often be prevented.

What causes nausea?

Nausea can stem from a number of causes. Some people are highly sensitive to motion or to certain foods, medications, or the effects of certain medical conditions. All these things can cause nausea. Common causes of nausea are described below.

Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Heartburn or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause your stomach’s contents to come back up your esophagus when you eat. This creates a burning sensation that causes nausea.

Infection or virus

Bacteria or viruses can affect the stomach and lead to nausea. Food-borne bacteria can cause an illness known as food poisoning. Viral infections can also cause nausea.

Medications

Taking certain medications — for example, cancer treatments like chemotherapy — can upset the stomach or contribute to nausea. Be sure to carefully read the medication information for any new medications you may be taking. Reading this information and talking to your doctor about treatments you’re receiving can help you minimize medication-related nausea.

Motion sickness and seasickness

Motion sickness and seasickness can result from a bumpy ride on a vehicle. This movement can cause the messages transmitted to the brain to not sync up with the senses, leading to nausea, dizziness, or vomiting.

Diet

Overeating or eating certain foods, such as spicy or high-fat foods, can upset the stomach and cause nausea. Eating foods you are allergic to can also cause nausea.

Pain

Intense pain can contribute to nausea symptoms. This is true for painful conditions such as pancreatitis, gallbladder stones, and or kidney stones.

Ulcer

Ulcers, or sores in the stomach or the lining of the small intestine, can contribute to nausea. When you eat, an ulcer can cause a burning sensation and sudden nausea.

Nausea is also a symptom of several other medical conditions, including:

  • benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV)
  • ear infection
  • heart attack
  • intestinal blockage
  • liver failure or liver cancer
  • meningitis
  • migraine headaches

When to seek medical help

Seek immediate medical help if your nausea is accompanied by heart attack symptoms. Heart attack symptoms include crushing chest pain, an intense headache, jaw pain, sweating, or pain in your left arm.

You should also seek emergency attention if you experience nausea combined with a severe headache, stiff neck, difficulty breathing, or confusion. Seek medical help if you suspect that you’ve ingested a poisonous substance or if you’re dehydrated.

See your physician if nausea has left you unable to eat or drink for more than 12 hours. You should also see your physician if your nausea doesn’t subside within 24 hours of trying over-the-counter interventions.

Always seek medical attention if you’re concerned you may be experiencing a medical emergency.

How is nausea treated?

Treatment for nausea depends upon the cause. Sitting in the front seat of a car, for example, may relieve motion sickness. Motion sickness can also be helped with medications such as dimenhydrinate (Dramamine), an antihistamine, or by applying a scopolamine patch to relieve seasickness.

Taking medications to address nausea’s underlying cause can help as well. Examples include stomach-acid reducers for GERD or pain-relieving medications for intense headaches.

Keeping hydrated can help to minimize dehydration after your nausea subsides. This includes taking small, frequent sips of clear liquids, such as water or an electrolyte-containing beverage.

When you begin to reintroduce food, it’s helpful to stick to the BRAT diet (bananas, rice, applesauce, and toast) until your stomach is more settled.

How is nausea prevented?

Avoiding nausea triggers can help to prevent nausea’s onset. This includes avoiding:

  • flickering lights, which can trigger migraine headaches
  • heat and humidity
  • sea voyages
  • strong odors, such as perfume and cooking smells

Taking an anti-nausea medication (scopolamine) before a journey can also prevent motion sickness.

Changes to your eating habits, such as eating small, frequent meals, can help to reduce nausea symptoms. Avoiding intense physical activity after meals can also minimize nausea. Avoiding spicy, high-fat, or greasy foods can also help. Examples of foods that are less likely to cause nausea include cereal, crackers, toast, gelatin, and broth.

Medically reviewed by Carissa Stephens, RN, BSN, CCRN, CPN on November 4, 2016Written by Rachel Nall, BSN


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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Conditions list medically reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA