The People's Perspective on Medicine

Will Sniffing Alcohol Ease Nausea After Surgery?

Nurses who take care of people after surgery know that sniffing alcohol wipes can help ease nausea quickly and easily.
First Aid Kit bag with White gauze bandage roll and pad with alcohol prep wipe medical scissors and medical tape isolated on white

Most of the time when we learn about an unusual home remedy, we have no idea how or even whether it works. So we were thrilled last year when we came across an actual placebo-controlled trial of sniffing alcohol wipes to ease nausea in the emergency department. A reader who learned about this remedy in the hospital following surgery wrote to us recently.

Sniffing Alcohol Wipes after Surgery:

Q. After I had surgery, the ICU nurses gave me alcohol wipes to sniff for the nausea. It worked like a charm.

When I was sent to another floor for my last day, I asked for the alcohol packets. The nurse on that floor asked in shock, “WHY are you sniffing alcohol?” It’s funny how nursing staff from one department may not know about the simple practices another department uses to help their patients. I explained to her that the ICU nurses had recommended it. She still looked skeptical but at least didn’t remove the packets.

I went home the next day with a few packets at the ready but was hardly bothered by nausea by then. We now keep some in our home first aid kit.

The Science on Alcohol Aromatherapy:

A. Emergency physicians conducted a randomized placebo-controlled trial of sniffing alcohol wipes compared to the powerful antiemetic ondansetron (April et al, Annals of Emergency Medicine, Aug. 2018). The researchers gave 40 patients both alcohol aromatherapy and ondansetron. Moreover, 41 of the patients used alcohol aromatherapy and took a placebo pill. In the third arm of the study, 41 other volunteers sniffed saline solution from packets and took ondansetron. 

The investigators concluded:

“…aromatherapy with or without oral ondansetron provides greater nausea relief than oral ondansetron alone.”

If you have ever tried this remedy, please tell us about your experience. In addition, if you know of a different remedy for a common problem and you don’t think we have written about it, we’d love to be enlightened.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • April et al, "Aromatherapy versus oral ondansetron for antiemetic therapy among adult emergency department patients: A randomized controlled trial." Annals of Emergency Medicine, Aug. 2018. DOI: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2018.01.016
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I had never heard of this until I recently had surgery. Post-op, I could not stop vomiting. The nurse stuck an alcohol wipe under my nose and it worked wonders. My stomach instantly calmed down. He sent extra wipes home with me.

I read this last week which was perfect timing as I was having surgery on March 27th. Previous surgeries have all ended with me very nauseous. I went and bought some alcohol prep pads to have at home. The next day I went in for my surgery and after receiving an epidural I got very nauseous and broke into sweats. The anesthesia team placed an alcohol prep under my nose and must say it worked as I soon started feeling better.

I will now keep alcohol prep pads around the house along with mustard for cramps and black pepper to stop bleeding. Thank You for the service y’all provide.

Sherri in PA: Absolutely, alcohol-based hand sanitizer works very well for me. The liquid/gel types (not the foam) works best for me for some reason. Note – a rare few sanitizers are not alcohol-based and I do not use them.

Good to know. Have always had post-op nausea and am due for biopsy.

My mother found that sniffing alcohol helped when she had a headache. I didn’t take it seriously but after reading that it helps nausea, I’m thinking she was right.

Several years ago I vomited after having a CT Scan with contrast dye. I needed another scan last summer and told the technician about my issues with contrast dye. He gave me an alcohol wipe to sniff (which thoroughly confused his aide) and much to my amazement, the nausea went away! I thanked him profusely and will always remember this little trick.

Do you think hand sanitizer would do the same thing? It’s much more readily available.

I’d suggest sniffing, and nipping, a half-shotglass of bourbon. (I’ve seen it work for a certain woman who’s not a drinker.)

As a certified oncology registered nurse I’ve cared for countless patients who either experienced or were at risk for nausea. Relieving nausea effectively is crucial, and not solely as a comfort, stress-reducing measure. If patients can’t eat or keep food down it adversely affects their recovery.

When I started in the 1970’s we had anti-nausea drugs which didn’t work very well. My patients would sometimes vomit just upon seeing my face, before I’d even started an IV. While our drugs today are typically very effective, they can be expensive, and patients can experience side effects.

In my experience, some volatile aromatics have really good effects on reducing nausea: I’ve employed alcohol, pine, cedar, juniper, eucalyptus, and mint essential oils.

One way to get the word out regarding the efficacy of established non-allopathic care is including the information in education and training curricula. The NIH Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine, along with a variety of Nursing research organiations might be logical starting points.

By the way: A classic, very effective anti-nausea remedy is sucking on peppermint candy, and candy in general also works well. People who experience nausea while taking Chantix benefit from this!

I think I will try this IF and WHEN I ever have surgery again. Nausea is so bad I have to be put in hospital for 24 hours after any surgery.

That was interesting to read. I never knew that. Am not surprised about what the other nurse did not know.

Not really a cure or relief for nausea, but when my niece was an infant, and we would be changing her diapers, or she would get herself worked up about something to the point she would be crying, and we were unable to calm her, we would give her a clean, fresh diaper wipe to hold and sniff. It did not have to be any particular scent (alcohol wipes just as well for this purpose) but just the ritual of flourishing it to present it to her, then her holding it to give it a sniff was enough to distract her and relax, calm her right down. It even worked when she was sick or had an upset tummy. This continued well into toddler-hood and she learned to handle her own emotions.

But, as an adult she admitted she always had an affinity for the scent of wipes, whether alcohol wipes or bathroom/diaper wipes. She told us they always made her feel calm for some reason. We then told her the story of why she felt that way.

Many years ago, I struggled with waves of nausea on the daily bus commute to New York City until my late father-in-law, a PhD chemist, recommended I sniff alcohol to get things under control. I soaked cotton balls in rubbing alcohol and packed them in a plastic bag in my briefcase. When the familiar nausea a hit, I opened the bag and took a few sniffs. It worked! Ever since then, I have used alcohol to reduce nausea, and it has always helped. Doesn’t matter if the alcohol is on wipes, cotton balls, a primary ingredient of another product, or you sniff it straight from a bottle; it tamps down the nausea almost immediately. I’ve even tried sniffing perfume when I forgot the cotton balls, and it helped as well.

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