Nausea is one of the most common ailments and symptoms of illness. Much like we use the terms “cold-like illness” and “flu-like symptoms” to describe a wide-but-familiar set of healthy symptoms, nausea is a universally recognized feeling with a wide variety of causes.
From mental stimuli like vertigo, dizziness, shock, and stress to physical causes like viruses or food poisoning, nausea is one of the ways your body tells you that something is amiss. The sensation ‘nausea’ is something from a mild stomach ‘dizziness’ or discomfort to the strong urge to vomit.
Nausea may be acute and clear quickly, or it can be prolonged. It is experienced at a range of intensity, from low-grade nausea to extreme and debilitating bouts.
Acute nausea is typically quick to resolve, regardless of the cause. It may stem from problems in the brain or organs of the upper gastrointestinal tract (esophagus, stomach, small intestine, liver, pancreas, and gallbladder).
Prolonged or recurring nausea also may be caused by diseases of many organs outside of the gastrointestinal system. The diagnosis of the cause of prolonged nausea is not always easy, but is quite important given that it may be the most obvious sign of a serious underlying condition.
All stimuli that cause nausea originate in the vomiting center in the brain, which gives rise to the sensation of nausea and triggers the physical act of vomiting if and when it is necessary.
Nausea itself is the unsettling feeling of stomach discomfort, vague internal anxiety, and dizziness. This may be the beginning of the brain’s subconscious drive to induce vomiting, which is a more obvious and direct effect of nausea.
Causes of Nausea
Nausea, which is the sensation associated with the involuntary reflex that causes vomiting, can be caused by a wide variety of factors. When seeking to treat nausea, it is important to try to identify potential causes.
The involuntary reflex that signals your body to vomit or feel nauseous stems from a wide variety of sensory inputs and nervous responses. These include directly obvious experiential stimuli, like dizziness, taste, smell, fear or other extreme emotions, pain, and direct bodily injury that induces pain or involuntary responses.
In these cases, one can assume that nausea or vomiting is a direct result of an experience, which means it will likely resolve on its own once the stimuli subside.
However, a large amount of cases of nausea are caused by more insidious internal factors like viruses, infections, food poisoning, diseases in the stomach, gallbladder, appendix, or other digestive glands, alcohol consumption, chemical imbalances, or even brain injuries or diseases which begin to wreak havoc on all involuntary response systems.
These cases may be relatively mild, as in the case of brief stomach viruses, or can be hugely dangerous if triggered by more serious underlying factors or if they lead to long-term nausea and vomiting which can cause potentially-lethal dehydration or malnutrition.
Understanding the cause of nausea is important, because different ailments require different treatments. However, the overall sensation of nausea can be addressed through a number of treatments which provide relief from the unsettling feeling.
How To Treat Nausea
If your nausea is due to an immediate external factor like motion sickness from a car or roller coaster, a disgusting taste or smell, or a shocking experience, the best nausea treatment is simply to remove yourself from the situation and continue taking deep breaths.
Nausea often leads to hyperventilating because the body’s subconscious mechanisms are competing for power--the brain is asking the stomach to remove something unwanted while you may be consciously fighting against it, which leaves other secondary responses like breathing regulation in limbo.
Even motion sickness and disgust can benefit from many forms of treatment, including bracelets designed to minimize motion sickness and nausea, mild fizzy drinks like Sprite, focusing on a fixed point and controlling breathing, and any series of natural remedies like chamomile tea or other generally calming but mild drinks.
More severe nausea, especially if caused by a virus, infection, or food poisoning may benefit from medical treatment, including generalized stomach-settling medicines like Pepto Bismol or more targeted anti-nausea drugs like Dramamine. Each works somewhat differently--either by calming the contents of the stomach or by targeting neural responses that create nausea--so different patients and types of nausea will have varying degrees of success with each.
For most mild, acute cases of nausea, managing symptoms is enough to allow your body to naturally overcome the underlying issues. A nausea medicine and focus on staying hydrated (especially if vomiting is present) are all that is needed to make it through most stomach viruses or bouts of food poisoning.
However, if the nausea presents for a prolonged period of time, it may be a sign of an underlying issue. Whether the vomiting is extremely severe or nausea is low-grade but persistent, it is advised that patients seek medical attention when the nausea seems to be ‘out of the ordinary.’
Always err on the side of caution when uncertain about the cause, severity, or duration of any illness. In the case of nausea, it may be the only directly-identifiable symptom of an underlying issue.
Here’s a helpful video on some home treatments that can help nausea.
How Long Does Usually Nausea Last?
For most cases of nausea, a bad smell, mild case of food poisoning, hangover, or dizziness from a ride in a vehicle are easy to overcome with a reasonable amount of time and common treatment options.
Even more pronounced cases caused by a stomach virus are typically resolved within a few days, with minimal complications as long as ample focus is placed on hydration and rest.
Cases that may require immediate medical attention include nausea induced by injury (especially head trauma!) and cases where a direct link is suspected between an ingested food or product that may be poisonous or contaminated with a severe virus like Salmonella or E. Coli.
In many cases, illness severity and associated complications will make it obvious if the nausea will resolve on its own or requires more extensive treatment. For most patients, the most pressing medical need associated with nausea and vomiting is hydration; it can be difficult to ingest ample fluids during times of extreme nausea, which may necessitate intravenous (IV) fluids simply to combate the far more dangerous complications of dehydration.
Nausea is an inconvenient but nearly universally-experienced feeling. Most people become familiar with the severity and effective treatments of nausea through life experience; however, understanding the stages, treatment options, and potentially serious implications of nausea is important as one makes an informed plan for how to treat current or future episodes of nausea.