Common causes of feeling sick

You’ve ruled out a hangover and food poisoning — so what’s causing that unsettled feeling in your stomach? LIZ CONNOR asks the experts
Common causes of feeling sick

Feeling sick or nauseous is very common and experts say there are lots of causes, although it isn’t always easy to get to the root of the issue.

IF you’ve finished off an exhausting week at work by imbibing your way through a small brewery with your colleagues on Friday night, it probably won’t come as a major surprise if you’re feeling slightly queasy come Saturday morning.

But what if you wake up with a delicate stomach — and you can’t blame it on the booze because you haven’t touched a drop? Feeling sick or nauseous is very common and experts say there are lots of causes, although it isn’t always easy to get to the root of the issue.

“Nausea is a common symptom that can be triggered by a number of physical or emotional events,” says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director at Healthspan ( “It is a non-specific symptom that can be difficult to pin down — some causes are common, while others are more rare — but any other accompanying symptoms, such as headache, dizziness, tinnitus, abdominal pain or diarrhoea, can help to determine the cause.”

Here, medical experts explain eight unexpected things that could be causing your queasiness, plus what you can do to make it go away...

1. Feeling stressed or anxious

We all know that stress and anxiety can affect the body in many ways, and it’s not uncommon for these things to trigger feelings of nausea or sickness.

“This is because your body reacts to stressful or anxious situations by releasing a surge of hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, and the imbalance can make us feel unwell,” explains Dr Luke Powles, associate clinical director at Bupa (

It’s usually obvious if this is the cause of your symptoms, as the nausea usually passes quickly once the feelings of fear and overwhelm settle. While it might feel out of control when it happens, there are lots of things we can do to manage stress and anxiety and help relieve any associated physical effects.

Powles says the best initial course of action is to try making simple lifestyle changes, to help reduce your feelings of stress or anxiety. These include leading a healthy lifestyle by eating a balanced diet and exercising regularly, looking at ways to reduce work stress and practising relaxing techniques, like meditation or mindfulness. Finding a quiet place to do some deep breathing can help hugely during moments of panic.

2. Taking certain medication

Whether taken for pain, allergies or mental health issues, popping a pill can sometimes irritate the lining of the stomach. Even common pharmaceuticals can have side-effects - including the ones we take to tackle allergies or colds. This is particularly common if you don’t use them as advised by your pharmacist, such as taking them on an empty stomach - so always read the guidelines.

“Nausea or vomiting can be among these side-effects, so it’s worth considering whether your sickness is linked to any medicines,” says Powles. “If you’re worried about a particular medicine you’re taking, you should always speak to a pharmacist or your GP.”

3. You’re pregnant

Nausea and vomiting in pregnancy, often known as morning sickness, is very common during the early stages - although sickness usually won’t start until the six to eight week mark. Contrary to what the name suggests, it can affect you at any time of the day or night, and some pregnant women feel sick all day long.

“Many women have nausea and vomiting during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy,” explains Powles. “In most cases, it is mild and doesn’t need any specific treatment, but in rarer instances, some women might experience severe pregnancy sickness, called hyperemesis gravidarum, which might require specialist treatment or medical support.”

4. Motion sickness

Many people find that motion during travelling, particularly by plane, car or aeroplane, can bring on a bout of sickness. Dr Brewer explains that motion sickness is due to excessive and repetitive stimulation of motion-detecting hair cells in the inner ear.

“This triggers motion sickness when the brain receives conflicting messages from the eyes that do not match the degree of movement detected by the inner ears,” she says.

This is especially likely to happen when travelling in an enclosed space such as a car, where you tend to focus on a nearby object - the eyes tell your brain the environment is stationary, while your balance organs say it is not.

“Other factors that can make travel sickness worse include anxiety, a stuffy atmosphere, inhaling exhaust or diesel fumes, a full stomach and the sight or smell of food,” says Dr Brewer.

“The most effective medication to prevent and treat motion sickness is cinnarizine, which is available from pharmacies.”

Other things might also help, such as sitting upright and facing forwards while travelling, avoiding reading and keeping cool and well-hydrated.

5. Kidney stones

Kidney stones are hard stones that can form in one or both of your kidneys, causing intense and often agonising pain.

“Many kidney stones are too small to cause symptoms and one in 10 people have them without knowing,” notes Powles. “However, kidney stones can move out of our kidney and into your ureter - the tube that carries urine from your kidney to your bladder - and this can cause symptoms, including sickness and vomiting, along with severe pain.”

While not always serious, it’s best to get these symptoms checked.

“If you experience nausea and vomiting associated with severe pain, or you are not passing stools or urine, it is important to see a doctor urgently,” says Dr Prudence Knight, an online GP from Push Doctor ( 

6. Gallstones

Similarly to kidney stones, gallstones develop in the gallbladder when chemicals like fats and minerals in your bile harden. They can take years to develop, and you might not know you’ve got any unless they show up during tests for something else, or they move and cause complications.

“Some of the most common symptoms to look out for are feeling sick or vomiting, typically accompanied with a high temperature and tummy pain, often in the right upper region,” explains Dr Powles.

It’s estimated that more than one in 10 adults in the UK has gallstones, although only a minority develop symptoms - and most cases are easily treated with keyhole surgery.

7. Migraine

Most people associate migraines with a nasty headache - but the condition is actually far more severe and complex than that and there are other symptoms associated with it too, such as feeling sick and/or vomiting.

“There’s unfortunately no cure for migraines,” says Powles, “but there are ways to treat symptoms, reduce the pain, and stop them from happening so often.”

When you feel a migraine coming on (some people may see spots or flashing lights), it’s best to rest in a quiet, darkened room. Powles advises applying pressure, an ice pack or hot water bottle to the painful area, as this may also help. There are also specific medications that can help with migraines, which your GP can advise about. If you’re struggling to manage severe migraines, ask for a specialist referral - help is out there.

8. A food intolerance

The NHS reports that the number of people who believe they have a food intolerance has risen dramatically over recent years, and if your body finds it difficult to digest certain foods, you may experience nausea, bloating and stomach pains.

“If you’re often feeling unwell after mealtimes and you’re worried you’re intolerant to a particular food, you should start keeping a food diary to monitor your symptoms,” advises Powles.

“But before you start eliminating complete food groups from your diet, it’s best to speak to your doctor or registered dietician first.”

If in doubt - see your GP.

Finally, if you have persistent nausea and vomiting for more than 48 hours, you should book in to see your GP. If you’re bringing up blood or bile, you have severe tummy pain and a high temperature, then it could be a sign of something more serious, and you should seek immediate medical attention.

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