Chemo nausea is a common side effect that doctors call chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. People can use medication and home remedies to manage it.

While vomiting is a well-documented side effect of chemotherapy, chemo nausea is not well understood. However, it is very common.

Different types of chemotherapy drugs can cause varying side effects, and not all of them result in nausea. Medications and alternative remedies help prevent and treat specific categories of chemo nausea.

This article will explain what causes chemo nausea and how to treat it.

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Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting can occur in as many as 80% of people undergoing chemotherapy. Doctors do not understand exactly why it causes nausea, but they do know that not all chemo drugs cause it.

Experts suggest that different factors may lead to chemotherapy-induced nausea or vomiting.

One explanation is that chemo can irritate the stomach or intestine, leading to vomiting.

Additionally, certain centers in the brain control vomiting. When chemotherapy drugs activate these centers in the brain, people experience vomiting.

Certain chemotherapy drugs can activate the chemoreceptor trigger zone, which is also located in the brain. The chemoreceptor trigger zone can activate the vomiting center in the medulla oblongata, which leads to vomiting.

While vomiting responses are well-known, how chemotherapy causes nausea is not well understood. Researchers are unsure if the same pathways that lead to vomiting also cause nausea.

One reason for this is that while vomiting is easy to identify, nausea is a sensation that people describe differently.

Doctors describe the side effect of nausea as a subjective sensation or feeling of an upset stomach. Sometimes, people may feel nausea in their throat and a sensation that they might vomit.

Nausea and vomiting may also be linked to the psychological stress and anxiety associated with receiving chemotherapy. Anticipation of nausea and vomiting with chemotherapy can induce these side effects.

People can take medications to alleviate nausea and vomiting. This is important because ongoing side effects of chemo can significantly affect a person’s quality of life.

Different medications can provide relief for nausea and vomiting — in fact, many chemotherapy treatment protocols include medications to help prevent nausea and vomiting.

Certain chemotherapy drugs have a high risk of causing nausea and vomiting and may require stronger antinausea treatments. Since people may have different experiences with chemotherapy and its related side effects, doctors personalize prevention and treatment strategies.

The following table lists groups of drugs and some examples of medications used to relieve nausea and vomiting from chemotherapy.

Class of drugsExample drug
5-HT3 receptor antagonists ondansetron (Zofran), dolasetron (Anzemet), granisetron (Sancuso)
NK1 receptor antagonists aprepitant (Emend), fosaprepitant (Emend), rolapitant (Varubi)
corticosteroidsdexamethasone (Hemady)
dopamine antagonistsmetoclopramide (Reglan), prochlorperazine (Compro)
atypical antipsychoticsolanzapine (Zyprexa)
cannabinoidsnabilone (Cesamet), dronabinol (Marinol)
benzodiazepineslorazepam (Ativan)

When needed, doctors may also prescribe different combinations of these medications since they all work in different ways to treat or prevent nausea and vomiting.

Some natural remedies can help prevent and treat chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Research on the efficacy of non-drug and alternative drug strategies to help with nausea caused by chemotherapy is lacking.

However, people may obtain other benefits from such treatments. It is important to note that these should not be used in place of medication, and it is best to speak with a healthcare professional before trying them.

Behavioral therapy

Anticipatory chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting occur when a person receives certain stimuli associated with chemotherapy. This is sometimes a learned response that people develop because of their experiences or thoughts about chemotherapy.

Different therapies that may help prevent or treat nausea and vomiting with chemotherapy include:

  • hypnosis
  • muscle relaxation with guided imagery
  • music therapy
  • systematic desensitization
  • biofeedback
  • acupuncture
  • acupressure

Alternative treatments

Ginger and cannabis are common alternative treatments for nausea and vomiting.

However, studies have not confirmed whether ginger is effective for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting despite it being a popular home remedy.

Cannabis is another popular remedy for nausea and vomiting. With increased public discussion and the legalization of cannabis in some states, more people may explore its use for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting.

There are various tips people can try that may relieve chemo nausea.

For example, on days when a person is receiving chemotherapy, eating a small meal or snack before treatment may help. Sipping fluids slowly throughout the day may also be effective. And skipping meals because of nausea may worsen nausea, so people should try to eat something small and easy to digest.

Choosing foods that are appealing can help prevent nausea too. These vary from person to person, but some examples include bland foods such as toast and white rice.

Sometimes nausea occurs in between meals. In these situations, experts recommend eating small snacks in between meals to avoid being on a completely empty stomach.

Smoothies, trail mixes, and fruit are healthy snacks that can help fill the stomach between meals.

The duration of chemo nausea depends on multiple factors.

Taking different chemotherapy drugs that cause nausea can make this side effect last longer. Additionally, individual responses to chemotherapy vary and can affect how long the nausea lasts.

Observing a person’s response to chemotherapy and antinausea medications can help doctors prescribe the most appropriate treatment plan.

Trials of different medications may be necessary before finding the best prevention and treatment for chemo nausea. However, people vomiting over a period of days should speak with their cancer care team.

Chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting are common side effects and can significantly affect a person’s quality of life. It can also affect a person’s treatment response if they decide to stop their medication.

Different medications can help prevent and treat chemo nausea. This can help improve the efficacy of chemotherapy to treat cancer.

Other alternative treatments, such as therapy and acupuncture, can help relieve chemo nausea.