Nausea Medications: OTC, Prescription, and More

By Terez Malka, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
August 22, 2022

Nausea medications help to relieve queasy feelings and upset stomachs that may or may not lead to vomiting. Many over-the-counter (OTC), prescription, and at-home treatments can alleviate feelings of nausea.In this article, we’ll go over the types of nausea medications and how they work. 

Then we’ll discuss the various possible treatments for nausea, common causes, and when to seek care from a medical provider.

Types of Nausea Medications

Depending on the cause of the nausea, many types of medications can be effective:

  • Antiemetic drugs
  • Serotonin antagonists
  • NK-1 receptor antagonists
  • Dopamine antagonists
  • Benzodiazepines
  • Olanzapine

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How Nausea Medications Work

Nausea medications work in different ways.

  • Antiemetic drugs block receptors in the gut that send messages to the brain that lead to the sensation of nausea. These are effective for treating motion sickness, since that feeling of nausea is triggered by how the brain interprets the feelings of motion in vehicles, airplanes, boats, or other moving surfaces.
  • Serotonin antagonists block the effects of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which can trigger nausea under certain conditions. These types of medications are often used by patients who experience nausea side effects from chemotherapy or other cancer treatments.
  • NK-1 receptor antagonists block the effects of certain chemicals that bind to the NK-1 receptor. This type of medication can treat acute and delayed nausea reactions from chemotherapy.
  • Dopamine antagonists prevent dopamine from binding to areas of the brain that lead to nausea. These are used in palliative care, long-term chronic conditions, or nausea that is not controlled by other medications.
  • Olanzapine blocks dopamine from affecting specific areas of the brain. It can treat chemotherapy nausea and nausea in palliative care settings.

Over-the-Counter (OTC) Nausea Medications

OTC medications that can treat nausea and act as anti-sickness medicine include:

  • Bismuth subsalicylate: Sold under the brand name Pepto-Bismol, this medicine treats nausea by reducing swelling in the gastrointestinal tract, reducing fluids in the gut, and killing germs or bacteria that can contribute to symptoms. Pepto-Bismol should never be given to children as it contains salicylates which can cause a rare, life-threatening condition called Reye’s syndrome.
  • Dimenhydrinate: Available as the brand name Dramamine, this antihistamine alleviates nausea relating to motion sickness or caused by pregnancy.
  • Meclizine: Sold as the brand names Bonine and Dramamine Less Drowsy, this and other antihistamines work similarly to dimenhydrinate but have less sleepy side effects. It can alleviate motion sickness but must be taken an hour in advance before effects can be felt.
  • Phosphoric acid/dextrose/fructose: A miscellaneous antiemetic drug available as Emetrol, this medication works to calm the stomach. It may have fewer side effects than dimenhydrinate and is available in a children’s formulation.
  • Isopropyl alcohol: Smelling isopropyl alcohol (rubbing alcohol) can help to alleviate nausea. To use, apply a small amount to a cotton ball or cotton pad and wave under your nose.  Do not ingest isopropyl alcohol or inhale large amounts. 

Prescription Nausea Medications

Many prescription medications can treat nausea, including:

  • Zofran: Ondansetron (Zofran) is a frequently prescribed serotonin 5-HT3 receptor antagonist that works for nausea caused by many conditions including food poisoning, viral illnesses, surgery, and chemotherapy.  
  • Promethazine: Available as the brand name Promethegan, Phenadoz, and others, promethazine is an antihistamine that treats nausea. 
  • Metoclopramide: Sold as the brand name Reglan, this dopamine receptor antagonist treats nausea and is also used for migraine headaches and conditions that cause slow emptying of the stomach.
  • Prochlorperazine: Available as the brand Compazine, this antipsychotic medication treats nausea, migraine headaches, and some psychiatric conditions. 
  • Scopolamine: Sold as the brand Transderm Scop, this anticholinergic drug treats nausea from motion sickness, anesthesia, and surgery. It is applied as a patch and can be worn for several days to prevent motion sickness. 

Other Nausea Treatments

Depending on the cause of nausea, one or a few of the following at-home treatments may help:

  • Drinking small sips clear soda or carbonated water
  • Eating bland foods
  • Consuming clear foods (broths, gelatin, and juice)
  • Avoiding spicy, greasy, or sugary foods
  • Eating ginger or drinking ginger tea
  • Consuming peppermint tea or candies
  • Aromatherapy with peppermint or lemon oil
  • Acupressure
  • Taking vitamin B6 (for pregnancy-related nausea)

Common Causes of Nausea

Common causes of nausea symptoms include:

  • Viral infection (like influenza) or other sickness
  • Food poisoning
  • Stomach ulcer
  • Motion sickness
  • Eating too much food
  • Acid reflux or GERD
  • Intestinal blockage
  • Concussion
  • Appendicitis
  • Gallbladder problems
  • Kidney or liver problems
  • Central nervous system disorders
  • Vertigo
  • Migraine
  • Hyperemesis gravidarum (severe morning sickness)

Nausea can also be a common symptom of more serious health problems like meningitis, heart attacks, some forms of cancer, and brain tumors.

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When to See a Medical Provider

If nausea lasts longer than a few days, is accompanied by other symptoms such as a headache or abdominal pain, or if you are unable to keep down liquids or stay hydrated, see a doctor or other qualified medical professional. 

While often harmless, nausea can sometimes signal a more serious underlying issue.

How K Health Can Help

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Download K Health to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a clinician in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is based on 20 years of clinical data.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do anti-nausea medications work?
Anti-nausea medications work in a few days. Some block signals to the brain, while others control how the gastrointestinal system works by reducing fluids or serving as a protective lining. Others block the activity of certain enzymes or neurotransmitters that cause the feelings of nausea.
What are the best treatments for nausea?
The best treatments for nausea depend on the cause. For nausea from pregnancy, chemotherapy, or motion sickness, many prescription options are available. At-home remedies can also be effective.
What should I do if I have frequent nausea?
If you have frequent nausea that doesn’t come from an obvious cause, see a medical provider. Nausea can be a sign of problems with digestive health such as acid reflux, gallbladder, or pancreatic issues. It may also signal more serious concerns such as some types of cancer, a brain tumor, or meningitis.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Terez Malka, MD

Dr. Terez Malka is a board-certified pediatrician and emergency medicine physician.