Is there anything worse than a bout of nausea? We think not. Nausea—which is the queasy and uncomfortable feeling that happens just before vomiting—can make it difficult to work, eat, and everything in between. However, nausea doesn't always lead to vomiting, and it can be short-lived (acute) or long-term (chronic). It can also happen with or without other unpleasant symptoms, like dizziness or stomach cramps, depending on the cause. That said, it's important to note that nausea is a symptom of a condition, rather than a condition itself. There are also many possible causes of nausea, according to William W. Li, MD, author of Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself. Some conditions are minor and get better on their own, while others are serious and require medical attention. Read on to learn what might be causing your nausea, plus tips for relieving the sensation.
Feeling sick to your stomach might indicate a problem with, well, your stomach. For example, in gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), the stomach's acidic contents move up into the esophagus, causing heartburn and regurgitation. Over time, this could lead to stomach discomfort and nausea, says Casey Kelley, MD, ABoIM, founder and medical director of Case Integrative Health. Another possible (and more serious) cause is a peptic ulcer, or a sore in your stomach or small intestine. Peptic ulcers cause inflammation and pain, prompting receptors in the area to warn the brain of a gut disturbance, says Dr. Li. In turn, the body responds with nausea.
Many other disorders of the digestive system (which includes your mouth, esophagus, stomach, and intestines) can also cause nausea. Examples include Crohn's disease and gastroparesis, a condition that slows down stomach emptying. "If you're experiencing long-lasting nausea, [especially with] symptoms such as bloating, indigestion, diarrhea, or constipation, visit your doctor to find out the cause," says Dr. Kelley.
From migraines to physical injuries, conditions that cause severe pain can make you feel nauseous. "Intense pain causes your body to release hormones, like adrenaline, which activate cellular receptors in the gut and brain that result in nausea," says Dr. Li. This can also happen after surgery, he adds. As the anesthesia wears off, the sensation of pain builds up, eventually becoming so intense that it causes nausea.
Nausea is a common side effect of medication, says Dr. Li. What's more, almost any medicine can cause it. "Chemotherapy drugs are the best-known nausea-causing medications, but antibiotics and pain medications [can] also cause stomach upset and nausea," notes Dr. Li. But why does this happen, exactly? According to Dr. Li, medications can trigger receptors in the gut that tell your body potentially harmful substances are in the blood. Your body may respond with nausea and vomiting, a defense mechanism it uses to get rid of the foreign substances.
"Several types of infections can cause nausea, particularly those caused by food poisoning," explains Dr. Kelley. (Food poisoning happens when you eat something that contains a harmful pathogen, like Salmonella or E. coli, she says.) Some viral infections, like those caused by norovirus or rotavirus, can also cause nausea, along with vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach pain, she adds. Luckily, both food poisoning and viral infections usually clear up on their own at home, given you stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. But if your symptoms continue for more than three days, Dr. Kelley suggests seeing a doctor.
On that note, is nausea a sign of a COVID-19 infection? In some cases, yes (but don't panic). According to the Centers for Disease Control, it's possible for COVID-19 to cause gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. These symptoms usually appear before the classic fever and respiratory symptoms (think: wheezing and shortness of breath). A 2021 review article links this effect to the virus attacking the gastrointestinal system and increasing inflammation, along with anxiety brought on by the global pandemic in general.
"If you're concerned that your nausea may be due to a COVID-19 infection, the best thing you can do is to get tested," Dr. Kelley says.
Motion sickness, including seasickness, is a common nausea cause. Here's how it works: "Motion is sensed through different nervous system pathways," Dr. Kelley explains. And when you intentionally move your body—like during walking—these pathways function in a coordinated manner. "However, when you combine intentional movement with movement such as a rocky boat, the nervous system receives conflicting signals," she says. This conflict leads to the uncomfortable, nauseating sensation known as motion sickness.
Something You Ate
According to Dr. Kelley, eating a large meal can lead to nausea, especially if it involves spicy or high-fat foods. This can cause inflammation in the stomach lining, also called gastritis. But thankfully, she reassures that this usually resolves pretty quickly, so the symptoms shouldn't last for long. Additionally, she notes that if you're allergic or sensitive to a certain food, eating said food may lead to nausea.
Your brain and gut are closely connected, both physically and chemically. So much so that the connection has a name—the brain-gut axis—and it's the reason why stress triggers physical symptoms. Case in point: When you're anxious or stressed, your body overproduces certain hormones. These hormones cause the release of neurotransmitters, which activate the part of the brain involved in nausea, says Dr. Li. "Stress can also cause changes in the gut microbiome," he adds, which may also result in nauseous feelings.
How to Get Rid of Nausea
Generally, reducing or eliminating the cause of the nausea will resolve the nausea itself. For example, if a certain medication is causing nausea, you might find relief with a different dose or drug. Otherwise, there are some things you can do to ease the sick-to-your-stomach feeling.
According to Dr. Kelley, ginger and peppermint are two of the most popular natural remedies for nausea. Ginger can be consumed as a tea or hard candies; the latter is exceptionally useful when you're on the go. Peppermint is also available as a tea, but you can also inhale the cooling aroma of peppermint oil. Simply transfer "peppermint oil into a rollerball [bottle, then apply] it to your wrists and neck," suggests Dr. Kelley.
As for non-food treatments? "The old-fashioned remedy of placing a cool compress on the back of [your] neck can change your perception of nausea and bring some relief," Dr. Li says. He also recommends taking deep, calming breaths, which can help chill out the brain signals causing nausea.
If these remedies don't work, or if your nausea is persistent, see a doctor. With their guidance, you can get to the root of the cause and ease your stomach woes.