Over-the-counter (OTC) medicines are medicines you can buy without a prescription from your doctor. Medicines for nausea are called antiemetics. They can help relieve nausea and vomiting. Several OTC medicines are used as antiemetics. These include:
- Bismuth subsalicylate (2 brand names: Kaopectate, Pepto-Bismol). It may help treat some types of nausea and vomiting, such as from gastroenteritis (stomach flu). It’s also used for upset stomach and as an antidiarrheal (medicine to treat diarrhea).
- Antihistamines. Certain types may help prevent nausea and vomiting caused by motion sickness. These include dimenhydrinate (brand name: Dramamine) and meclizine hydrochloride (brand name: Dramamine Less Drowsy).
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How do antiemetic medicines work?
Bismuth subsalicylate works by protecting the stomach lining.
Antihistamines appear to dull the inner ear’s ability to sense motion. They block messages to the part of the brain that controls nausea and vomiting. This is why they work best if you take them before you start feeling motion sickness.
How do I safely take OTC antiemetic medicines?
Before you take an OTC antiemetic medicine, read the directions on the drug facts label. This will tell you how much medicine to take and how often to take it. If you have any questions, call your family doctor or pharmacist. Keep a record of which OTC medicines you are using and when you take them. If you need to go to the doctor, take this list with you.
Follow these tips to make sure you are taking the right amount of medicine:
- Take only the amount recommended on the medicine’s label. Don’t assume that more medicine will work better or quicker. Taking more than the recommended amount can be dangerous.
- If you are taking a prescription medicine, ask your doctor if it’s okay to also take an OTC antiemetic medicine.
- Don’t use more than 1 kind of OTC antiemetic medicine at a time unless your doctor says it’s okay. They may have similar active ingredients. These could add up to be too much medicine.
How can I safely store OTC antiemetic medicines?
Store all medicines up and away, out of reach and sight of young children. Keep medicines in a cool, dry place. This will help prevent them from becoming less effective. Do not store medicines in bathrooms or bathroom cabinets. They are often hot and humid.
Things to consider
Healthy adults usually don’t experience side effects from antiemetic medicines. Side effects can be a concern for older adults or people who have health problems.
The most common side effects of bismuth subsalicylate are:
- Darkened stools or tongue
- Ringing sound in the ears (tinnitus)
These are short-term side effects.
Antihistamines may make you feel sleepy. This can affect your ability to drive or operate machines. It may be hard for you to think clearly. Alcohol can increase the drowsiness caused by antihistamines. Antihistamines may also cause your mouth and eyes to feel dry.
Who shouldn’t take OTC antiemetic medicines?
Some people are allergic to aspirin or other salicylate medicines. They should not take bismuth subsalicylate. Don’t give bismuth subsalicylate to children 12 years of age or younger. Don’t give it to children or teenagers who may have the flu or chickenpox. This increases their risk for Reye syndrome. This is a serious illness that can lead to death.
Before taking an antihistamine, talk to your doctor if you have any of the following problems:
- Trouble urinating (from an enlarged prostate gland)
- Breathing problems, such as asthma, emphysema, or chronic bronchitis
- Thyroid disease
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
Can OTC antiemetic medicines cause problems with any other medicines I take?
Bismuth subsalicylate may affect how well some medicines work. It also may cause side effects if combined with other medicines. Ask your doctor before taking bismuth subsalicylate if you also take:
- Blood-thinning medicines
- Medicines for gout
- Medicines for arthritis
- Medicines for diabetes
Ask your doctor before taking bismuth subsalicylate if you take pain relievers or cold medicines. These medicines may contain aspirin, which is a salicylate. You may get too much salicylate if you take more than 1 of these medicines at a time.
Talk to your doctor before taking an antihistamine if you take sleeping pills, sedatives, or muscle relaxants. Many OTC cold and allergy medicines contain antihistamines. If you use more than 1 of these medicines, you may get more antihistamine than you intend. Some prescription medicines have side effects similar to the side effects of antihistamines. These could include dry mouth and drowsiness. Talk with your doctor before taking these medicines at the same time.
Questions to ask your doctor
- What kind of antiemetic medicine is best for me?
- How does the medicine help my nausea?
- How often can I take it?
- Is there a limit on how many days I can take it?
- What kinds of side effects should I look for?
Funding and support for this material have been provided by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.