Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense

Not everyone experiences nausea and vomiting during chemotherapy. Find out if you're at risk of these side effects and what you and your doctor can do to prevent them.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects of chemotherapy treatment for cancer. But in most cases, these side effects can be controlled with preventive medications and other measures.

Who's at risk of chemotherapy nausea and vomiting?

Whether you'll experience nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy depends on:

  • What chemotherapy drugs you receive and their dosage
  • Whether you receive other cancer treatments — such as radiation — during your chemotherapy treatment
  • Whether you've experienced nausea and vomiting in the past

Chemotherapy drugs are classified into four different categories based on the likelihood they will cause nausea and vomiting: high, moderate, low or minimal. If you get one of the drugs that is known to cause nausea and vomiting, your doctor will probably give you preventive medicine.

Whether a drug will cause nausea and vomiting also depends on the amount you receive. Some drugs may be less likely to cause side effects at lower doses. Ask your doctor whether your treatment plan is likely to cause nausea and vomiting.

Personal factors that may increase your risk

Not everyone reacts to chemotherapy in the same way. Certain factors may make you more vulnerable to treatment-related nausea and vomiting.

You may be more vulnerable if one or more of the following apply to you:

  • You're a woman.
  • You're younger than 50.
  • You've experienced nausea and vomiting with previous treatments, or you have a history of motion sickness.
  • You have a high level of anxiety.
  • You experienced morning sickness during pregnancy.
  • You are prone to vomiting when you're sick.
  • You have a history of drinking little or no alcohol.

Also, if you expect that your treatment will cause nausea and vomiting, there's a chance that it will. This might happen if you think that all cancer treatments cause these side effects, which isn't true. Your doctor can tell you whether the treatment you'll receive is likely to cause nausea and vomiting.

How do doctors prevent nausea and vomiting?

Most people undergoing chemotherapy receive anti-nausea (anti-emetic) medications to prevent nausea and vomiting.

There are many medications used to prevent nausea and vomiting. Your doctor chooses anti-nausea medications based on how likely your chemotherapy drugs are to cause nausea and vomiting. You may take as few as one to as many as four medications, depending on your situation.

Your doctor will give you some medications before the chemotherapy and then will instruct you on which medications to take on a regular schedule on the days after the chemotherapy and which medications to take only if you feel nauseated.

Doctors take this proactive approach to prevent nausea and vomiting because these side effects can be difficult to control once they begin. Nausea and vomiting can make you feel miserable, add to your fatigue and distress, and make you reluctant to stick to your treatment schedule.

What additional measures can you take to prevent nausea and vomiting?

You can take steps to reduce your risk of nausea and vomiting. For example:

  • Eat small meals. Stagger small meals throughout the day rather than eating fewer, larger meals. If possible, don't skip meals. Eating a light meal a few hours before treatment also may help.
  • Eat what appeals to you. It's best, however, to avoid foods that are sweet, fried or fatty. In addition, cool foods may give off less bothersome odors.

    Cook and freeze meals in advance of treatment to avoid cooking when you're not feeling well. Or have someone else cook for you.

  • Drink lots of fluids. Try cool beverages, such as water, unsweetened fruit juices, tea or ginger ale that's lost its carbonation. It may help to drink small amounts throughout the day, rather than larger amounts less frequently.
  • Avoid unpleasant smells. Pay attention to what smells trigger nausea for you and limit your exposure to unpleasant smells. Fresh air may help.
  • Make yourself comfortable. Rest after eating, but don't lie flat for a couple of hours. Try wearing loosefitting clothing and distracting yourself with other activities.
  • Use relaxation techniques. Examples include meditation and deep breathing.
  • Consider complementary therapies. Complementary and alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and aromatherapy, may help you feel better when used in combination with medications from your doctor. Tell your doctor if you're interested in trying these treatments. He or she may be able to recommend a practitioner who works with people undergoing cancer treatments.

These self-care measures may help you prevent nausea and vomiting, but they can't take the place of anti-nausea medications.

If you begin to feel nauseated despite the medications, call your doctor. Treatments may include additional medications, though your individual treatment will depend on what's causing your signs and symptoms.

Nov. 01, 2018 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Acute lymphocytic leukemia
  2. Acute myelogenous leukemia
  3. Adjuvant therapy for cancer
  4. Alternative cancer treatments: 10 options to consider
  5. Anal cancer
  6. Atypical cells: Are they cancer?
  7. Beating Ovarian Cancer
  8. Biopsy procedures
  9. Bladder cancer
  10. Infographic: Bladder Cancer
  11. Video: Bladder cancer stages
  12. Bladder cancer treatment options
  13. Infographic: Blood Cancer Awareness
  14. Bone cancer
  15. Bone metastasis
  16. Brain tumor
  17. Breast cancer
  18. Breast cancer chemoprevention
  19. Breast Cancer Education Tool
  20. Breast cancer radiation: Can it cause dry skin?
  21. Infographic: Breast Cancer Risk
  22. Breast cancer staging
  23. Breast cancer types
  24. Infographic: Breast Reconstruction Options
  25. Dr. Wallace Video
  26. CA 125 test: A screening test for ovarian cancer?
  27. Cancer
  28. Cancer blood tests
  29. Myths about cancer causes
  30. Infographic: Cancer Clinical Trials Offer Many Benefits
  31. Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping
  32. Cancer diagnosis? Advice for dealing with what comes next
  33. Cancer-related fatigue
  34. Cancer pain: Relief is possible
  35. Cancer risk: What the numbers mean
  36. Cancer surgery
  37. Cancer survival rate
  38. Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
  39. Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
  40. Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment
  41. Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with loved ones after treatment
  42. Cancer treatment decisions: 5 steps to help you decide
  43. Cancer treatment for men: Possible sexual side effects
  44. Cancer treatment for women: Possible sexual side effects
  45. Cancer treatment myths
  46. Cancer Vaccine Research
  47. Carcinoid syndrome
  48. Castleman disease
  49. Cervical cancer
  50. Cervical dysplasia: Is it cancer?
  51. Chemo Targets
  52. Chemotherapy
  53. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  54. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  55. Chemotherapy side effects: A cause of heart disease?
  56. Cholangiocarcinoma (bile duct cancer)
  57. Choroid plexus carcinoma
  58. Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
  59. Chronic myelogenous leukemia
  60. Collecting Pennies Through the Pain
  61. Colon cancer
  62. Colon Cancer Family Registry
  63. Colon cancer screening: At what age can you stop?
  64. Colon cancer screening
  65. Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
  66. Cutaneous T-cell lymphoma
  67. Dealing with anxiety after Hodgkin's lymphoma
  68. Cancer-related diarrhea
  69. Dragon Boats and Breast Cancer
  70. Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
  71. Embryonal tumors
  72. Endometrial cancer
  73. Ependymoma
  74. Esophageal cancer
  75. Infographic: Esophageal Cancer
  76. Ewing sarcoma
  77. Fertility preservation
  78. Flaxseed: Does it affect risk of prostate cancer?
  79. Frequent sex: Does it protect against prostate cancer?
  80. Gallbladder cancer
  81. Gene expression profiling for breast cancer: What is it?
  82. Genetic Testing for Breast Cancer
  83. Genetic testing for breast cancer: Psychological and social impact
  84. Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy
  85. GI Stents
  86. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  87. Glowing Cancer Surgery
  88. Hairy cell leukemia
  89. Have dark skin? You still need sunscreen
  90. Head and neck cancers
  91. High-dose vitamin C: Can it kill cancer cells?
  92. Hodgkin's lymphoma (Hodgkin's disease)
  93. Diet and Hodgkin's lymphoma recovery
  94. Hodgkin's vs. non-Hodgkin's lymphoma: What's the difference?
  95. HPV infection: How does it cause cervical cancer?
  96. Infographic: HPV Related Oral Cancers
  97. Inflammatory breast cancer
  98. Infographic: Innovative Rectal Cancer Treatments
  99. Invasive lobular carcinoma
  100. Leukemia
  101. Liver cancer
  102. Infographic: Liver Cancer
  103. Infographic: Liver Transplant Bile Duct Cancer
  104. Living better after Hodgkin's lymphoma
  105. Living with Brain Tumors
  106. Long Term Brain Cancer Survivor
  107. Low blood counts
  108. Lung cancer
  109. Infographic: Lung Cancer
  110. Lung nodules: Can they be cancerous?
  111. Magic mouthwash
  112. Maintaining intimacy through Hodgkin's lymphoma
  113. Male breast cancer
  114. Measles Virus as a Cancer Fighter
  115. Melanoma
  116. Merkel cell carcinoma
  117. Mesothelioma
  118. Monoclonal antibody drugs
  119. Mort Crim and Cancer
  120. Mouth cancer
  121. Mouth sores caused by cancer treatment: How to cope
  122. Multiple myeloma
  123. Infographic: Multiple Myeloma
  124. Myelofibrosis
  125. Myelofibrosis
  126. Nasopharyngeal carcinoma
  127. Neuroblastoma
  128. Neuroendocrine tumors
  129. Neurofibromatosis
  130. New immunotherapy approved for metastatic bladder cancer
  131. No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment
  132. Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  133. Osteosarcoma
  134. Living with an ostomy
  135. Ovarian cancer
  136. Ovarian cancer: Still possible after hysterectomy?
  137. Ovarian cancer vaccine: Can it prevent recurrence?
  138. Paget's disease of the breast
  139. Palliative care: Who is it for?
  140. Pancreatic cancer
  141. Infographic: Pancreatic Cancer: Minimally Invasive Surgery
  142. Pancreatic Cancer Survivor
  143. Pancreatic cancer treatment: Why is it so challenging?
  144. Pap test: Can it detect ovarian cancer?
  145. Paulas story A team approach to battling breast cancer
  146. Peripheral nerve tumors
  147. Pet therapy
  148. Pheochromocytoma
  149. Photodynamic therapy: An effective treatment for lung cancer?
  150. Pineoblastoma
  151. Pink Sisters
  152. Pomegranate juice: A cure for prostate cancer?
  153. Prostate cancer
  154. Prostate cancer brachytherapy: Can I pass radiation to others?
  155. Infographic: Prostate Cancer: Choline c-11
  156. Prostate cancer: Does PSA level affect prognosis?
  157. Prostate cancer metastasis: Where does prostate cancer spread?
  158. Prostate cancer prevention
  159. Prostate cancer treatment: Does initial treatment preclude others later?
  160. Punk Guitarist Survives Brain Tumor
  161. Rectal cancer
  162. Recurrent breast cancer
  163. Retinoblastoma
  164. Working after Hodgkin's lymphoma
  165. Robotic bladder surgery
  166. Salivary gland tumors
  167. Scientists propose a breast cancer drug for some bladder cancer patients
  168. Scrotal masses
  169. Self-Image During Cancer
  170. Skin cancer
  171. Infographic: Skin Cancer
  172. Skin Cancer Reconstruction
  173. Melanoma pictures to help identify skin cancer
  174. Coping with Hodgkin's lymphoma with laughter
  175. Radiation simulation
  176. Small cell, large cell cancer: What this means
  177. Soft tissue sarcoma
  178. Spinal cord tumor
  179. Spray tanning? Hold your breath
  180. Fitness after lymphoma treatment
  181. Stomach cancer
  182. Infographic: Stomach Cancer
  183. Summer sun: Know the danger zone
  184. Super Survivor Conquers Cancer
  185. Testicular cancer
  186. Testicular microlithiasis
  187. Thalidomide: Research advances in cancer and other conditions
  188. The Long Race Beating Cancer
  189. Throat cancer
  190. Thyroid cancer
  191. Tumor vs. cyst: What's the difference?
  192. Vaginal cancer
  193. Vasectomy: Does it increase my risk of prostate cancer?
  194. Vertebral tumor
  195. Melanoma ­— Early stage and advanced melanoma
  196. How cancer spreads
  197. PICC line placement
  198. Skin cancer — How skin cancer develops
  199. Vulvar cancer
  200. Weight Loss After Breast Cancer
  201. When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence
  202. Wilms' tumor
  203. Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!
  204. Zollinger-Ellison syndrome