Oncology: Controlling Nausea and Vomiting

Man holding glass of water, preparing to take pill.

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Side effects happen when treatment changes some normal cells as well as cancer cells. In this case, the cells lining your stomach and the part of your brain that controls vomiting are affected.

Nausea is feeling that you need to throw up. Vomiting is when you actually do throw up. This is when your body forces food that is in your stomach out through your mouth.

Nausea and vomiting are common. They can be caused by many things. These include:

  • Stomach flu (gastroenteritis)

  • Food poisoning

  • Stomach pain (gastritis)

  • Blockages in the digestive system

  • Constipation

  • Infection

  • Anxiety and stress

They can also be caused by a head injury, an infection in the brain or inside the ear, or migraines. Other common causes of nausea and vomiting include:

  • Brain tumor

  • Brain bruise or injury

  • Motion sickness

  • Alcohol, pain medicines such as morphine, and cancer medicines (chemotherapy)

  • Certain medical treatments, such as radiation therapy

  • Poisonous things (toxins) such as plants or liquids that are swallowed by accident

  • Advanced types of cancer

  • Movement problems (psychogenic problems)

Extra pressure in the fluid that surrounds the brain and spinal cord (elevated intracranial pressure)

Sometimes belly (abdominal) pain and cramps are experienced along with nausea and vomiting. The symptoms can be mild and go away by themselves. Other symptoms can be serious and must be treated.

When to seek medical advice

Nausea and vomiting can happen before, during, or after cancer treatments. But it can be controlled. Don’t consider it a normal part of cancer and cancer treatment. If not managed, it can become serious. It can change the fluid and chemical balances in your body, and could even keep you from getting cancer treatment. Call your healthcare provider right away if any of the following occur:

  • You have nausea or vomiting that lasts 24 hours or more

  • You can’t take your antiemetics, or they are not working

  • You have trouble keeping fluids down

  • You become dizzy, lightheaded, or confused

  • You have very dark urine or you stop urinating

Talk to your healthcare provider about your treatment and the nausea and vomiting management plan that's best for you. Be sure you know how and when to use antiemetics and when to call your provider.

Medicines can help

Nausea or vomiting can often be prevented or controlled with medicines called antiemetics. Your provider may give you antiemetics before or after treatment if you are getting chemotherapy or other treatments that cause nausea or vomiting. You may have to try different medicines or different combinations of medicines to get relief. But in nearly all cases, nausea and vomiting can be relieved.

Eating tips

  • If you have medicines to control nausea, take them before meals as directed.

  • Avoid fatty or greasy foods while nauseated.

  • Eat small meals slowly throughout the day.

  • Ask someone to sit with you while you eat to keep you from thinking about feeling nauseated.

  • Eat foods at room temperature or colder to avoid strong smells.

  • Eat dry foods, such as toast, crackers, or pretzels. Also eat cool, light foods, such as applesauce, and bland foods, such as oatmeal or skinned chicken.

  • Try to keep taking in clear fluids in small sips, or as ice chips, gelatin, or ice pops.

Other ways to feel better

  • Get a little fresh air. Take a short walk.

  • Talk to a friend, listen to music, or watch TV.

  • Take a few deep, slow breaths.

  • Eat by candlelight or in surroundings that you find relaxing.

  • Use a method to help you relax, such as guided imagery. Imagine yourself in a beautiful, restful scene. Or daydream about the place you’d most like to be.