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Persistent nausea or vomiting

Medical Professionals

Professional Reference articles are designed for health professionals to use. They are written by UK doctors and based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. You may find one of our health articles more useful.

The possible diagnoses for a patient presenting with persistent nausea and/or vomiting are many and varied but can often be considered under five main headings:

  • Pregnancy.

  • Visceral disease.

  • Toxic substance effects/metabolic conditions.

  • Central nervous system disease.

  • Psychiatric illness.

Continue reading below

Assessment of the patient

Assessment of the patient with persistent nausea and vomiting should fall into two categories:

  • Assessment of the physical state of the patient, which has occurred as a consequence of the nausea/vomiting.

  • Look for evidence of:

    • Poor nutritional state

    • Dehydration

    • Electrolyte imbalance

  • Assessment of the patient with regard to the potential underlying cause.


Common causes of persistent nausea and vomiting

Underlying cause


Mechanisms leading to nausea and vomiting

Irritation or stretching of the meninges.

Raised intracranial pressure caused by intracranial tumour.

Not known, may involve meningeal mechanoreceptors.

Pelvic or abdominal tumour.

Mesenteric metastases.

Metastases of liver.

Ureteric obstruction.

Retroperitoneal cancer.

Stretching of mechanoreceptors.

Bowel obstruction secondary to malignancy.

Mechanical - intrinsic or extrinsic by tumour.

Functional - disorders of intestinal motility secondary to malignant involvement of
nerves, bowel muscle or blood supply.

Paraneoplastic neuropathy.

Stretching of mechanoreceptors.

Gastric stasis.

Drugs (anticholinergics, opioids).

Mechanical obstruction to gastric emptying: tumour, gastritis, peptic ulcer, hepatomegaly.

Autonomic failure - eg, in advanced diabetes.

Gastric mechanoreceptors.


Drugs - anti-epileptics, opioids, antibiotics, cytotoxics, digoxin.

Metabolic - hypercalcaemia: consider if drowsiness, confusion, thirst occur, particularly if of sudden onset.

Toxins - eg, tumour necrosis, bacterial toxins.

Chemoreceptors in the trigger zone.


Concern about diagnosis, treatment, symptomatology, social issues, anticipatory emesis with cytotoxics.

Multiple receptors in the cerebral cortex.


Abdominal tumours.


Disease affecting vestibular system.

Accentuates stretch of
mechanoreceptors by tumours.

Vestibular sensitivity is increased.

Vestibular function is disturbed.

Visceral disease

Toxic substance effects/metabolic conditions

Central nervous system disease

  • Cyclical vomiting syndrome - this is characterised by recurrent, discrete episodes of vomiting in an otherwise healthy person, usually a child2 . It can also be associated with episodes of abdominal pain and there is often a family history of migraines.

  • Vestibular labyrinthitis and Ménière's disease.

  • Raised intracranial pressure - eg, due to a space-occupying lesion, intracranial bleed.

Psychiatric disease

Continue reading below


Full history

It is important to pay particular attention to duration, severity, aggravating and relieving factors, associated features, drug and occupational history, social history, last menstrual period, previous medical history and recent trauma.

Full examination

In particular, assess hydration and nutritional state, examine the abdomen, sclera and optic discs and check for nystagmus.

The following tests may be appropriate:

  • Urine dipstick - for protein, blood, glucose, pH, bilirubin, urobilinogen.

  • Serum urea.

  • Serum calcium.

  • LFTs.

  • FBC.

  • Pregnancy test.

  • Abdominal X-ray.

  • Abdominal ultrasound.

  • Endoscopy.

  • Abdominal CT/MRI scan.

  • CT or MRI of the brain if there is suspicion of raised intracranial pressure.

Nausea management

General measures

  • Patients with persistent nausea and/or vomiting should be given appropriate dietary advice and advice on fluid intake.

  • Patients with severe dehydration may require treatment with intravenous fluids.

  • Psychiatric or psychology referral may be appropriate for those thought to have an underlying psychiatric/psychological cause.

  • Pregnant women should be given emotional support, advice concerning diet and adequate nutritional intake and be advised to avoid large-volume meals and tight clothing. See the separate Nausea and Vomiting in Pregnancy article for more information.

  • There is some evidence for the use of acupuncture for the symptomatic relief of nausea and vomiting and this may be an option for some patients. A Cochrane review found low-quality evidence to support its use in the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting3 .


  • Once the cause of vomiting has been established, symptomatic relief may be given (if appropriate) in the form of antiemetic therapy.

  • Many classes of drugs exhibit antiemetic properties - eg, antihistamines, phenothiazines (such as prochlorperazine) and antipsychotic drugs (such as haloperidol).

  • Metoclopramide acts directly on the gastrointestinal tract. However, there is a risk of potentially serious neurological adverse effects with this drug, such as extrapyramidal disorders and tardive dyskinesia.

  • In view of these potential adverse effects, the following restrictions to indications, dose and duration of use of metoclopramide have been made4 :

    • In adults over 18 years, metoclopramide should only be used for prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting, radiotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, delayed (but not acute) chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, and symptomatic treatment of nausea and vomiting, including that associated with acute migraine (where it may also be used to improve absorption of oral analgesics).

    • It should only be prescribed for short-term use (up to five days).

    • Oral liquid formulations should be given via an appropriately designed, graduated oral syringe to ensure dose accuracy.

  • Medications including cyclizine and metoclopramide have been shown to be safe and effective treatments in pregnancy5 .

  • Domperidone acts at the chemoreceptor trigger zone and is especially useful for nausea and vomiting associated with chemotherapy.

  • Prokinetic agents such as domperidone can also be beneficial in the management of those with gastroparesis6 .

  • Gastro-electrical stimulation is an option for treating chronic, intractable nausea and vomiting secondary to gastroparesis7 .

  • Granisetron and ondansetron are specific 5HT3 antagonists and, as such, are particularly useful for postoperative nausea and vomiting and that associated with cytotoxic therapy. They can also be beneficial in children8 . A Cochrane review could not identify any antiemetic regime that was superior to any other9 .

  • Dexamethasone and nabilone (a synthetic cannabinoid) may be useful for patients on cytotoxic drugs, with nausea that is resistant to other therapy.


Surgery may be required to treat some underlying causes of nausea and vomiting - eg, raised intracranial pressure and some forms of obstruction.

Continue reading below

Nausea and vomiting complications

Recurrent vomiting may result in:

Further reading and references

  1. Herrell HE; Nausea and vomiting of pregnancy. Am Fam Physician. 2014 Jun 15;89(12):965-70.
  2. Tan ML, Liwanag MJ, Quak SH; Cyclical vomiting syndrome: Recognition, assessment and management. World J Clin Pediatr. 2014 Aug 8;3(3):54-8. doi: 10.5409/wjcp.v3.i3.54. eCollection 2014 Aug 8.
  3. Lee A, Chan SK, Fan LT; Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point PC6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2015 Nov 2;11:CD003281. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003281.pub4.
  4. Medicines Healthcare Regulatory Agency; Metoclopramide: Risk of neurological effects, 2014
  5. No authors listed; Practice Bulletin No. 153: Nausea and Vomiting of Pregnancy. Obstet Gynecol. 2015 Sep;126(3):e12-24. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000001048.
  6. Camilleri M; Novel Diet, Drugs and Gastric Interventions for Gastroparesis. Clin Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2016 Jan 4. pii: S1542-3565(15)01724-3. doi: 10.1016/j.cgh.2015.12.033.
  7. Gastroelectrical stimulation for gastroparesis; NICE Interventional procedures guidance, May 2014
  8. Phillips RS, Friend AJ, Gibson F, et al; Antiemetic medication for prevention and treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in childhood. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2016 Feb 2;2:CD007786.
  9. Piechotta V, Adams A, Haque M, et al; Antiemetics for adults for prevention of nausea and vomiting caused by moderately or highly emetogenic chemotherapy: a network meta-analysis. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021 Nov 16;11:CD012775. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD012775.pub2.

Article History

The information on this page is written and peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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