Several conditions can cause nausea, including stress, anxiety, infections, motion sickness, and many more. Occasional temporary nausea is also common but typically not cause for concern.
Nausea is a sensation that makes a person feel they need to vomit. Sometimes, individuals with nausea do vomit, but not always.
In this article, we explore what triggers nausea, including a list of 12 common causes. We will also discuss some of these conditions in more detail and describe their symptoms and treatments.
There are many triggers for nausea. Some common causes include:
The following sections explore some of the most common causes for nausea in more detail.
Several types of infection may cause nausea, including:
Food poisoning or stomach flu
Symptoms may include:
- stomach pain or cramping
Food poisoning occurs when a person ingests food or drink containing a virus, toxin, or bacterium, such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli. Other gastrointestinal viruses, such as norovirus or rotavirus, occur due to close contact with someone who is sick.
These infections usually clear up on their own at home. Drinking enough fluids and electrolytes is important for preventing dehydration, particularly in young children.
Flu and COVID-19
Other types of viral infection can also trigger nausea, such as flu and COVID-19. The symptoms of COVID-19 include:
A 2021 review found that out of 6,335 people with COVID-19, 79% experienced nausea.
People with flu can also have many of these symptoms. Nausea is more common in children with flu compared to adults, but both groups may experience it.
Because the symptoms of COVID-19 are similar to those of flu and can vary from person to person, it is important to stay at home and follow local guidelines if someone has any symptoms that may indicate COVID-19.
A range of digestive disorders can induce nausea, including:
- Gastritis: Acid or a bacterium called H. pylori often cause inflammation of the stomach, which can lead to stomach ulcers.
- Gastroparesis: With this condition, the stomach empties much slower than it should. Certain medications or nerve damage usually cause this, which is common in people with diabetes.
- Gastroesophageal reflux disease: Triggers chronic acid reflux and indigestion.
- IBS: Causes stomach cramping, along with diarrhea or constipation.
- Celiac disease: An autoimmune condition that causes symptoms in response to gluten.
- Gallbladder conditions: Includes issues such as gallstones.
- Pancreas conditions: Includes issues such as pancreatitis.
Typically, nausea is not the only symptom of chronic digestive disorders. A person may also experience:
- abdominal bloating or fullness
- gas or belching
- heartburn or indigestion
- diarrhea, constipation, or both
- abdominal pain and cramping
- reactions or intolerance to specific foods or food groups
The diagnosis and treatment for digestive disorders vary depending on the cause. They may involve a combination of medications, dietary or lifestyle changes, or in some cases, medical procedures.
Mental health and digestive health are closely linked. People with mental health conditions can experience digestive symptoms, including nausea. Similarly, stress can also exacerbate digestive conditions.
People who frequently feel stressed, anxious, or panicked may have an anxiety disorder. The symptoms of anxiety include:
- rapid heartbeat
- quick or shallow breathing
- choking sensation in the throat
- tense muscles
Severe anxiety can also trigger panic attacks, or in some cases, fainting. For example, people with a fear of needles or blood may experience nausea, dizziness, and loss of consciousness. This is known as vasovagal syncope.
People can also experience a phobia of nausea and vomiting itself. Doctors call this emetophobia.
Treatment for anxiety disorders typically involves talking therapy, medication to manage symptoms, or both.
The vestibular system resides in the inner ear, helping the body retain a sense of balance and know where it is relative to its surroundings. Issues with this system can cause dizziness or vertigo, which in turn causes nausea.
Conditions that may cause this include:
- Motion sickness: Occurs in response to conflicting signals of movement sent to the brain. Riding in cars, planes, or boats often triggers this.
- Labyrinthitis: An inner ear infection that can occur following a cold or flu.
- Vestibular neuritis: Occurs when the nerve inside the inner ear becomes inflamed.
- Meniere’s disease: Causes sudden episodes of dizziness, which can be severe.
The treatment for inner ear disorders can vary depending on the cause and the individual. People with an ear infection may find symptoms improve on their own over time, while over-the-counter (OTC) travel sickness medications may be enough to ease occasional motion sickness.
Those with more chronic conditions may need to try various medications, lifestyle changes, or coping techniques to manage their symptoms.
Changes in hormone levels, such as those caused by pregnancy, hormonal contraception, or endocrine disorders, may also cause nausea.
Nausea is a common symptom during pregnancy. It is often known as morning sickness, although it can occur at any time. It may also develop suddenly or gradually.
Pregnant people may experience nausea when around certain foods or smells, or when they are hungry. Generally, morning sickness improves after 14 weeks.
Doctors may prescribe vitamin B6 or doxylamine to help with nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.
The thyroid gland controls hormones that regulate the body’s metabolism. Both overactive or underactive thyroid can cause nausea.
Symptoms of an overactive thyroid, or hyperthyroidism, include:
- tiredness or muscle weakness
- intolerance to heat
- difficulty sleeping
- shaky hands
- rapid heartbeat
- frequent bowel movements
- weight loss and difficulty gaining weight
Symptoms of an underactive thyroid, or hypothyroidism, include:
- puffy face
- weight gain and difficulty losing weight
- intolerance to the cold
- dry skin and hair
- slower heartbeat
Doctors often treat these conditions with medication, which can also cause nausea as a side effect.
There are many ways in which changes in the brain and nervous system can cause nausea. Scientists do not fully understand all of them yet.
One of the most common neurological conditions that triggers nausea is migraine. This is a disorder that causes episodes of moderate-to-severe headache, along with other symptoms, including:
- light or sound sensitivity
- aura, which are neurological changes that some people experience before pain develops
Some individuals also experience silent or acephalgic migraine, which does not cause any pain.
There are several treatments for migraine. For occasional or less severe episodes, people may find taking OTC pain medications and avoiding triggers is enough. For severe or frequent migraine, a person may need preventative medications or other therapies.
More serious neurological causes for nausea include head trauma, meningitis, or a hemorrhage.
Nausea is a common side effect of many medications, including:
Medications work by changing chemical processes in the brain and body. For example, neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, can impact nausea and vomiting, so drugs that act on these chemicals can worsen or improve these symptoms.
Medication-related nausea and vomiting can be constant or occur at random intervals. It usually starts shortly after taking a new medication. Speak with a doctor if medicines could be causing nausea.
What helps people manage nausea can vary depending on the cause. For general nausea relief, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) suggest:
- getting fresh air
- eating small, frequent meals
- staying hydrated by sipping cold drinks, such as water or juice
- drinking ginger or peppermint tea
- eating foods that contain ginger
- avoiding spicy, strong-smelling, or greasy foods
People who experience nausea because of stress or anxiety may also find breathing techniques, relaxation training, or mindfulness exercises helpful.
While home remedies can relieve the feeling of nausea, they are not a replacement for medical treatment for those with underlying conditions.
If a person frequently experiences nausea for no clear reason, they can consider speaking with a doctor to determine the cause. If the cause is psychological, speaking with a therapist may help.
Nausea is not usually an emergency. However, if it occurs alongside symptoms of a serious condition or after an injury, someone may need emergency help. Dial 911 if someone experiences nausea:
- after a recent head injury
- alongside a severe, sudden headache
- with neck stiffness, fever, headache, and vomiting
In some cases, nausea can be an early warning sign of a heart attack. This is more common in females, who can experience less obvious symptoms during a heart attack. Seek emergency help if someone has:
- pain, pressure, or squeezing in the center of the chest
- trouble breathing
- pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, or jaw
- a cold sweat
There are many potential causes of nausea. In most cases, it is not a sign of a serious illness. Many conditions that trigger nausea are treatable or temporary.
Speak with a doctor about chronic or recurring nausea, as there may be ways to reduce this symptom and improve quality of life.