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Coping with Nausea

August 2000

A note from Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

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Table of Contents:

Nausea, or feeling sick to your stomach, is a common but uncomfortable condition. Feelings of nausea can range from slight queasiness to strong urges to throw up. Nausea is not a disease, but rather a symptom of some other problem. It is a common side effect of many drugs used to manage HIV disease. Nausea can also be caused by stress, headaches, spoiled foods, stomach viruses, unpleasant odors, eating or drinking too much or too little, alcohol, street drugs and morning sickness in pregnant women.

Though everyone experiences nausea from time to time, prolonged nausea can interfere with your quality of life. It can make eating, drinking and taking medications difficult, often resulting in not taking your medications as prescribed. For these reasons, it's important that you prevent and control nausea.

This paper focuses on ways to manage nausea. For more information on managing other specific drug side effects, call Project Inform's HIV Health InfoLine at 1-800-822-7422 and request Dealing with Drug Side Effects.


Causes and Clues

Drug-related nausea is caused by a large number of medications, including anti-HIV drugs and drugs used to treat HIV-related infections. This kind of nausea is generally the most severe during the first few weeks of starting a new drug, before the body has become accustomed to it. For most people, nausea decreases or disappears as the body adjusts to a new treatment. This usually lasts four to six weeks. In other cases, nausea develops when a new combination of drugs is taken at the same time. Some drugs are much more likely than others to cause nausea.

If nausea occurs without a recent change in medication, it is probably not a drug side effect. If it persists or worsens despite your steps to treat it, nausea may be telling you that you have an infection, especially if it's accompanied by other symptoms like fever, diarrhea, abdominal pain, etc. In women, it may be an early sign of pregnancy. Nausea might also be due to or worsened by other lifestyle factors and everyday things, such as diet, yeast, odors, chronic pain, etc.

Getting Control

Preventing and controlling nausea helps ensure that you're able to eat food and take medicine properly. Generally speaking, you should try to control nausea through practical and dietary changes first. These are often effective and generally do not add the risk of other possible side effects.

However, if nausea does not improve with these types of changes, anti-nausea medications may help. In cases of severe drug-related nausea that persists or worsens despite your attempts to curb it, it may be necessary to stop or switch therapy. (See Switching or Stopping Therapy.)

Keeping track of when your nausea occurs and what may be triggering it (specific foods, time of day, surroundings) can give you information you need to prevent or lessen feelings of nausea in the future. You can also share this information with your doctor.

TIP: If you know that nausea tends to occur in the morning -- keep crackers or some other bland food by your bed. Before getting out of bed, prop yourself up with pillows and slowly eat a few crackers. Take time doing this -- about 10 or 15 minutes. It can alleviate feeling nauseous and is a nice way to ease into one's day.

Food Issues

When you're HIV-positive, eating properly is important to maintain weight and get the nutrients you need to stay healthy. However, it can be hard to eat properly when you feel nauseated or you're unable to keep food down. In some cases, even the smell, sight and taste of food can trigger nausea.

Determining which meal times and foods usually trigger nausea can help prevent it in the future. Many beverages and foods can help curb it. Experiment with different foods and beverages to see which work for you. (See Help From Food). Keep plenty of these items on hand in places and times when bouts of nausea may strike (bedroom, kitchen, car, your bag, place of work).

Tip: If nausea tends to occur at breakfast, try to take it easy in the morning and have already prepared foods on hand for when you're hungry. Try breakfast bars, dry toast or re-heat oatmeal that you prepared the night before. Consider not cooking breakfast as seeing and smelling food in the morning can trigger nausea.

Help from Food:

Consider the following tips to help manage nausea. These suggestions have worked for others.
  • Leave dry crackers by your bed. Before getting out of bed in the morning, eat a few and sit in bed for a few minutes.

  • Sip cool, not cold, carbonated drinks, like ginger ale, 7-Up, Sprite or cola.

  • Try some peppermint, chamomile or ginger tea -- they may calm the stomach.

  • Avoid hot, spicy, strong-smelling and greasy foods that might upset your stomach.

  • Eat foods at room temperature or cooler; hot foods may add to nausea.

  • Try using capsules of ginger root powder, available at health food stores. Ginger may reduce symptoms associated with motion sickness, like dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

  • Fresh ginger, lightly cooked or juiced with fruits or vegetables like carrots or apples, is great to add to the diet, and may be as effective as dried ginger.

  • Try the BRAT Diet (Bananas, Rice, Applesauce and Toast).

  • Prevent dehydration during bouts of nausea by drinking small amounts of clear and cool beverages every fifteen minutes or so. Then gradually work your way back up to normal eating by taking small sips of water every several minutes. Increase the intake until you can tolerate a small meal.

  • If you vomit, replace fluids with broth, carbonated beverages, juice, Jell-O or Popsicles.

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Side Effect Chart: An Abbreviated, At-a-Glance Guide to HIV Drug Side Effects
More on HIV Medication Side Effects

A note from Since this article was written, the HIV pandemic has changed, as has our understanding of HIV/AIDS and its treatment. As a result, parts of this article may be outdated. Please keep this in mind, and be sure to visit other parts of our site for more recent information!

  • Email Email
  • Printable Single-Page Print-Friendly
  • Glossary Glossary

This article was provided by Project Inform. Visit Project Inform's website to find out more about their activities, publications and services.