Key messages

  • A recent systematic review [1] has identified evidence to support the use of metoclopramide and 5HT3 antagonists in advanced cancer. Other antiemetics are fequently used in palliative care, but at present lack a strong evidence base.
  • The choice of an antiemetic for nausea may be either empirical, or aetiological - related to the likely main mechanism of nausea and / or vomiting. There is no evidence to support one approach over the other, based on a systematic review of randomised controlled trials. [1]
  • Clinical practice guidelines for palliative management of malignant bowel obstruction are available. [2]
  • It is likely that steroids hasten the resolution of bowel obstruction, [3] although this conclusion is based on very small studies and the effect size was small.
  • The option of rectal or gastroduodenal stenting in malignant obstruction appears to offer good palliation in selected patients. [4-6]


Nausea can either be acute, or persistent and chronic, and is not always associated with vomiting. In many cases it is possible to identify a cause, although in the palliative care population nausea is frequently multifactorial.

Palliative conditions that frequently cause nausea and / or vomiting include intra-abdominal or gastrointestinal malignancies - especially those which result in bowel obstruction; central nervous system malignancy - which may cause raised intracranial pressure, cerebellar or vestibular symptoms; and HIV AIDS.

Other factors that contribute to nausea and / or vomiting that should be sought, and treated where possible, include:

  • Metabolic imbalance, including hypercalcemia, uraemia, liver failure
  • Sepsis (including urinary tract and respiratory tract infection)
  • Conditions affecting gastrointestinal motility, including constipation, previous surgery, gastroparesis, or autonomic failure
  • Reflux or peptic ulcer disease 
  • Medication and treatment side effects, including opioids and other drugs, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy
  • Anxiety and depression, anticipatory nausea
  • Inappropriate presentation of food.

More in this topic

Bowel obstruction

Active research areas / controversies 

  • There are no widely accepted assessment tools for nausea and vomiting, particularly for research. Nausea must be self-assessed by patients, whereas vomiting can be monitored objectively. Nausea is routinely assessed in Australian palliative care services using Symptom Assessment Scores (SAS) which is part of the PCOC dataset.
  • Despite widespread use in palliative care, there is currently no high level evidence supporting the use of haloperidol as an antiemetic. [1,7] Its use continues to be based on uncontrolled studies [8] and expert opinion. [9]
  • No high level evidence was found to support the common clinical practice of avoiding prokinetic antiemetic drugs such as metoclopramide or domperidone in complete bowel obstruction, due to the possible risk of adverse effects including worsening abdominal pain. This recommendation continues to be based on expert opinion. [10]
  • A systematic review of Nabilone (a cannabinoid which is licensed for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting in the USA) shows it to be an effective antiemetic, although it is less effective than metoclopramide, and adds no benefit to 5HT3 antagonists. [11] Some concerns about the side effects of cannibinoids remain. [12]
  • A multisite randomised controlled trial studying antiemetics in palliative care is underway in Australia. It will firstly test whether prescribing according to clinical guidelines based on the presumed mechanism of nausea is effective, and secondly for patients with refractory nausea, will compare methotrimeprazine (levomepromazine) with either ondansetron or best supportive care using other antiemetics.
  • The potential role of octreotide in bowel obstruction is currently being studied in a multisite randomised controlled trial.

PubMed Searches

  1. Glare P, Pereira G, Kristjanson LJ, Stockler M, Tattersall M. Systematic review of the efficacy of antiemetics in the treatment of nausea in patients with far-advanced cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2004 Jun;12(6):432-40. Epub 2004 Apr 24.
  2. Ripamonti C, Twycross R, Baines M, Bozzetti F, Capris S, De Conno F, et al. Clinical-practice recommendations for the management of bowel obstruction in patients with end-stage cancer. Supportive Care Cancer. 2001 Jun;9(4):223-33. 
  3. Feuer DJ, Broadley KE. Corticosteroids for the resolution of malignant bowel obstruction in advanced gynaecological and gastrointestinal cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2000;(2):CD001219.
  4. Khot U, Lang AW, Murali K, Parker MC. Systematic review of the efficacy and safety of colorectal stents. Br J Surg.  2002 Sep;89(9):1096-102.
  5. Watt A, Faragher IG, Griffin TT, Rieger NA, Maddern GJ. Self-expanding metal stents for relieving malignant colorectal obstruction: a systematic review. Ann Surg. 2007 Jul;246(1):24-30.
  6. Hosono S, Ohtani H, Arimoto Y, Kanamiya Y. Endoscopic stenting versus surgical gastroenterostomy  for palliation of malignant gastroduodenal obstruction: a meta-analysis. J Gastroenterol. 2007 Apr;42(4):283-90. Epub 2007 Apr 26.
  7. Perkins P, Dorman S. Haloperidol for the treatment of nausea and vomiting in palliative care patients. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2009 Apr 15;(2):CD006271.
  8. Hardy JR, O’Shea A, White C, Gilshenan K, Welch L, Douglas C. The efficacy of haloperidol in the management of nausea and vomiting in patients with cancer. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2010 Jul;40(1):111-6.
  9. Keeley PW. Nausea and vomiting in people with cancer and other chronic diseases. Clin Evid (Online), 2009 Jan 13;2009. pii: 2406.
  10. Ripamonti C. Malignant bowel obstruction in advanced and terminal cancer patients. Eur J Palliat Care. 1994 Spring;1(1):16-9.
  11. Davis MP. Oral nabilone capsules in the treatment of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting and pain. Expert Opin Investig Drugs. 2008;17(1):85-95.
  12. Wang T, Collet JP, Shapiro S, Ware MA. Adverse effects of medical cannabinoids: a systematic review. CMAJ. 2008 Jun 17;178(13):1669-78.
Last updated 18 January 2017