What Is Nausea?

A Queasy or Uneasy Stomach With Many Causes

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Nausea is generally described as a queasy or uneasy stomach, with or without the feeling that you are about to vomit. It can be a symptom of a wide variety of conditions, ranging from mild and temporary to chronic and serious. Because it has an extensive number of causes, nausea is experienced by almost everyone at some time.

The stimulation of nausea originates in a site in the dorsal brainstem, which receives input from the vagus nerve. Subsequently, this input is relayed to higher brain regions to evoke the sensation of nausea.

Man experiences nausea curled up on couch
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Nausea Symptoms

Nausea can cause an uncomfortable feeling in the back of the throat, the chest, or the top part of the stomach. It may be accompanied by an aversion to eating or an urge to vomit.

If, in addition to nausea, you have any of the following symptoms, you should contact a doctor immediately. Your nausea may be an indication of a serious condition that requires prompt attention:

  • Recent head injury  
  • Severe headache  
  • Severe abdominal pain  
  • Vomiting blood  
  • Extreme weakness  
  • High fever (over 101 F)  
  • Blurred vision or eye pain  
  • Confusion or stiff neck  

For nausea lasting for more than one week unrelated to the above conditions, you should consult a doctor.

Causes

Nausea can be caused by a variety of conditions and diseases; sometimes as an associated symptom, other times as a warning sign. Here are some of the most common causes.

Pregnancy

Nausea is experienced by about 50% of people who are pregnant during the first few months of pregnancy. It is caused by changes in reproductive hormones and is both a symptom and a warning sign of pregnancy.

Nausea is also a common side effect of birth control pills and can occur during monthly periods, again due to shifting hormone balances.

Brain/Sensory Organ Conditions

Any type of brain injury may cause nausea. Other common conditions in which nausea may be associated include migraine headaches, meningitis, stroke, and brain tumors

Glaucoma, a common condition in older adults, in which eye pressure is increased, can cause nausea. The inner ear plays a major role in balance. A variety of conditions can affect the inner ear, resulting in dizziness, a sense of spinning, imbalance, and nausea.

Digestive Organ Problems

Many types of digestive organ conditions can cause nausea. Some of the more common are gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), hepatitis, pancreatitis, appendicitis, peptic ulcer, and gallbladder problems. Nausea can also be caused by constipation.

Infections 

Both viral and bacterial infections can cause nausea. Viral infections that affect the gut, also called gastroenteritis (stomach flu), can cause nausea. Seasonal flu viruses also commonly cause nausea. Food poisoning and travel sickness, caused by bacteria and other micro-organisms, are usually accompanied by nausea.

Motion Sickness

Motion sickness is triggered by repeated movements in varying directions. Common locales include boats, cars, trains, airplanes, and amusement park rides. Nausea is a common symptom of motion sickness.

Heart Attack in Women

Women, like men, can experience chest pain as a heart attack symptom. However, women are more likely to experience other symptoms, such as a cold sweat, dizziness, and nausea. Women often delay going to a doctor, as they think it’s only the flu.

Disease Treatment

More than 50% of all medications cause nausea as a side effect. The risk for nausea increases when more than one medication is taken at the same time. Cancer treatment with chemotherapy drugs routinely causes nausea. After surgery, some people experience nausea as a reaction to the anesthesia they were given.

Sensitivity to Smells

Some people are very sensitive to smells and may feel nauseous by exposure to perfumes or some food odors.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis of nausea is dependent on its cause. Reporting any other symptoms and providing a complete medical history to your doctor are essential to achieving a valid diagnosis. In addition to a physical exam, your doctor may order blood or other laboratory and imaging tests.

Treatment

As with diagnosis, the treatment of nausea is dependent on the cause. For symptoms associated with serious disease, nausea may subside as the condition improves. For some conditions, doctors may prescribe specific medication.

Some nausea can be prevented by avoiding triggers. For example, if nausea is brought on by motion sickness or specific food odors, avoid those situations whenever possible. The good news is that changes in your diet and some over-the-counter (OTC) products and natural remedies can help

Diet

Until your stomach settles, it helps to modify your food intake to a bland or soft diet. Recommended foods on this diet are easier to digest, less acidic, and lower in fiber. It is designed to give your digestive organs a rest.

The bland diet avoids fried and other fatty foods, spices, nuts and seeds, acidic fruits, whole grains, raw fruits and vegetables, and beans and vegetables that cause gas. Alcohol and carbonated drinks (which also cause gas) are also excluded.

A bland diet is based on cooked food. It includes but is not limited to broth, bland vegetables (carrot, beets, spinach), eggs, and lean meat and fish.

OTC Products

Dramamine is commonly used to prevent the nausea of motion sickness. For nausea from irritation of the digestive tract, Pepto-Bismol and Kapopectate are known for their coating and calming effects. For other nausea issues, ask a pharmacist for recommendations.

Ginger

Ginger is an ancient Chinese herb, used for digestive disorders for centuries. Studies have shown that ginger relieves nausea during pregnancy.

Mint

Both spearmint and peppermint essential oil were shown in a 2013 study to reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea in cancer patients. Another study has shown the effectiveness of peppermint essential oil in reducing postoperative nausea.

Peppermint aromatherapy was also shown to be effective in relieving nausea in women after undergoing a C-section.  Mint has been used for centuries as a tea to calm the digestive tract.

Cannabis-Based Medicines

A 2015 review of 23 randomized controlled trials of patients receiving chemotherapy for cancer showed that fewer patients who received cannabis-based medicines experienced nausea than did those who received a placebo.

The review noted that in trials where patients received cannabis-based medicines and conventional anti-nausea medications, in turn, they preferred the cannabis-based treatment.

Prognosis

In many situations, nausea is a temporary symptom. For example, nausea from food poisoning or exposure to unusual food and water microorganisms while traveling will resolve fairly quickly once the toxins are passed.

As pregnancy progresses, nausea decreases. Post-surgical nausea typically resolves once the anesthesia is released from the body. If you suffer from motion sickness nausea, it will be relieved once the motion is ended. Speak with your doctor about the medications you are taking, as they may be responsible for nausea.

When nausea is associated with a serious disease, it may take some time for the symptom to be resolved. Your doctor may prescribe a specific anti-nausea medication or recommend OTC options. The herbal remedies described above may also be helpful.

A Word From Verywell

Nausea is a common and unpleasant experience. However, nausea can sometimes serve as a useful warning signal. It can motivate you to see a doctor sooner than later, and it may help identify a potentially serious medical condition.

 

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