Managing Nausea and Vomiting in Palliative Care and Hospice

Nausea and vomiting are common and distressing symptoms in many palliative care patients. Identifying the cause or causes and treating the symptoms promptly can increase comfort and quality of life.

A doctor talking with his patient
Fuse / Getty Images

Prevalence of Nausea and Vomiting Toward the End of Life

Nausea—an unpleasant feeling in the stomach that may or may not be followed by vomiting—is very common as a patient moves toward the end of life. It is most common in patients with terminal cancer. It is also common in patients with other diagnoses.

It almost goes without saying that nausea and vomiting—which very often occur together but can also occur independently of each other—are distressing symptoms. More importantly, they can prevent a patient from taking in an adequate level of hydration and nutrition as well as important medications.

Causes

There are several causes of nausea and vomiting. Noxious odors, tastes, or sights can sometimes trigger this response. Certain medications such as opioid analgesics (narcotic pain medications), NSAIDs, antibiotics, and chemotherapeutic agents can cause nausea as well.

Physical changes in the gastrointestinal tract such as constipation or bowel obstruction are yet other examples of causes. Because treatment of nausea and vomiting can largely depend on what's causing it, your healthcare provider will do a thorough assessment to try to determine the cause.

Treatment

Treatment will begin with identifying the cause, and reversing it if possible. This may include removing or avoiding noxious stimuli, discontinuing unnecessary medications, and treating constipation. Medications to treat nausea and vomiting may be used when the cause is irreversible or the symptoms persist despite treatment. Medications may include:

  • Anti-emetics like Phenergan (promethazine) and Compazine (prochlorperazine)
  • Anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan (lorazepam)
  • Reglan (metoclopramide)
  • Haldol (haloperidol)
  • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)

There are many different ways to administer most of the common medications to treat nausea and vomiting, which is especially important if pills are regurgitated before digestion. Some patients may be given a liquid form of the medicine if they can keep it down.

Sometimes medication will be given as a suppository (in the rectum) or even as a topical gel on the skin. There are other treatments that can be given along with medication or used while you're waiting for a medication to arrive. Some things you can try include:

  • Provide fresh air and loosen the patient's clothing.
  • Apply a cool compress to the patient's forehead, neck, and wrists.
  • Avoid odors that can trigger an episode; avoid cooking heavily-odored food and don’t wear perfume or after-shave when you will be close to the patient.
  • Offer small meals and limit drinks served with each one. Offer liquids at other times during the day but drinking too much liquid with food can cause vomiting.
  • Serve food cold, which can limit odors that can make a patient nauseated.
  • As with any symptom, be sure to contact your healthcare provider immediately. Prompt treatment will help ensure that the patient gets comfortable as soon as possible.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are nausea and vomiting common at the end of life?

    Yes, nausea and vomiting are very common at the end of life. Nausea and vomiting can be due to medication side effects or physical changes to the gastrointestinal tract, such as constipation or bowel obstruction. 

  • How is end-of-life nausea and vomiting treated?

    Nausea and vomiting at the end of life are treated in a few different ways depending on the cause of the upset stomach. The first treatment will be to eliminate the cause of nausea and vomiting if it is known. Sometimes this is a matter of changing medications or treating medication side effects, such as constipation. If there is no apparent cause, the doctor can prescribe medication to reduce nausea and vomiting.

  • What medications treat nausea and vomiting?

    Medications used to treat nausea and vomiting at the end of life include: 

    • Ativan (lorazepam)
    • Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
    • Compazine (prochlorperazine)
    • Dramamine (dimenhydrinate)
    • Haldol (haloperidol)
    • Levoprome (levomepromazine)
    • Marezine (cyclizine)
    • Motilium (domperidone)
    • Phenergan (promethazine) 
    • Propulsid (cisapride)
    • Reglan (metoclopramide)
    • Scopolamine (hyoscine)
    • Thorazine (chlorpromazine)
    • Zofran (ondansetron)
Was this page helpful?
3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Albert RH. End-of-life care: managing common symptoms. Am Fam Physician. 2017 Mar 15;95(6):356-361.

  2. Glare P, Miller J, Nikolova T, Tickoo R. Treating nausea and vomiting in palliative care: a reviewClin Interv Aging. 2011;6:243–259. doi:10.2147/CIA.S13109

  3. Glare P, Miller J, Nikolova T, Tickoo R. Treating nausea and vomiting in palliative care: a review. Clin Interv Aging. 2011;6:243-59. doi:10.2147/CIA.S13109