Preventing Nausea After Surgery

Woman with nausea. Getty Images

After my breast biopsy and again after my lumpectomy, I woke up with an overwhelming sensation of nausea. When I talked about this with my coworkers, they said, "Everybody gets post-op nausea. It's just part of surgery." That didn't sound right -– so before my mastectomy, I grilled my general surgeon about it. The good news is that you can request pretreatment with anti-nausea (antiemetic) drugs.

Anesthesia drugs may be used to put you to sleep, or prevent pain during your surgery.

That's a welcome benefit of anesthesia. However, those same drugs may cause you to feel nauseous and to retch or vomit.

Risk Factors

It's true that not everybody gets sick after surgery. If you're an adult and have these risk factors, you may have a greater chance of having postoperative nausea and vomiting:

  • Female
  • Nonsmoker
  • History of motion sickness
  • A previous episode of postoperative nausea and vomiting
  • Surgery that takes more than 30 minutes
  • General anesthesia uses nitrous oxide
  • An opium-based drug given for pain

Signs and Symptoms

If you have a bad reaction to anesthesia, you might vomit enough fluids to cause dehydration, resulting in low levels of electrolytes and minerals circulating in your system. Retching and repeated vomiting can leave your tummy muscles feeling sore and weak. In rare cases, you can develop a rip in the lining of the tissue at the end of your esophagus where it meets your stomach –- in which case you might see some blood when you vomit.

There are good treatments for all of these problems. But you must speak up and ask for help, if you need it.


Your anesthesiologist can help you prevent nausea caused by anesthesia drugs. You can be given special medications just before surgery that will prevent or greatly reduce your nausea and vomiting.

Be sure to take these medications exactly as prescribed because otherwise they might not work at all. Your anesthesiologist can also give you anti-nausea drugs in your intravenous line during surgery. In the recovery room, you can be given pills or a scopolamine patch behind your ear to help prevent post-surgical nausea and vomiting. Many of these nausea medications will make you drowsy, so just take it easy and allow yourself to doze off.

Drug-Free Options

If you want to try a drug-free alternative, perhaps you could try an acupressure wristband. A 2004 study of data from 4,858 surgeries showed that when patients had wrist acupuncture or acupressure, "the use of P6 acupoint stimulation can reduce the risk of nausea and vomiting after surgery, with minimal side effects." These patients either wore an acupressure wristband or had needle acupuncture, laser stimulation, or manually applied acupressure. Researchers said that patients had fewer side effects from the acupressure, and that these methods compared favorably with antiemetic drugs. Pressure on your P6 wrist acupressure point signals your brain to release serotonin, dopamine or endorphins, which block other chemicals that are causing the nausea and vomiting.

Talk to Your Anesthesiologist

You will meet with your anesthesiologist at your pre-operative appointment or just before surgery. It is to your benefit to be honest and accurate when talking to an anesthesiologist about your health. Let him or her know if you've had trouble with anesthesia in the past. Be sure to share about any allergies you might have. Talk about any pain, nausea, or vomiting that you've had related to surgery. Ask what treatments can be given to help you. If you're nervous about surgery, you can even ask for a sedative. During your surgery, your anesthesiologist will be responsible for keeping you comfortable and watching your vital signs.

Your anesthesiologist is interested in your safety and comfort during and after surgery. Be open with him or her to make your journey safer and easier

A Word from Verywell

Surgery for breast cancer is a very stressful experience for most of us. We worry about the outcome as well as having immediate fears related to pain and being nauseous. There are medications that will relieve both the pain and the nausea following surgery. If you receive morphine to manage postoperative pain following a mastectomy, you may experience nausea as a side effect of the morphine, in addition to nausea as a result of surgery and anesthesia. Be sure to ask for something to relieve the nausea; you need to be able to eat and sleep, and nausea can make it harder for you to do so.

Edited by: Jean Campbell, MS


Nausea And Vomiting. Chandra Prakash, MD, MRCP, Division of Gastroenterology, Washington University, St. Louis, MO. American College of Gastroenterology.

Stimulation of the wrist acupuncture point P6 for preventing postoperative nausea and vomiting. Lee A, Fan LTY. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2009, Issue 2. First published online: July 19, 2004

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