Prevention and treatment of postoperative nausea and vomiting

Drugs. 2000 Feb;59(2):213-43. doi: 10.2165/00003495-200059020-00005.


Pain, nausea and vomiting are frequently listed by patients as their most important perioperative concerns. With the change in emphasis from an inpatient to outpatient hospital and office-based medical/surgical environment, there has been increased interest in the 'big little problem' of postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV). Currently, the overall incidence of PONV is estimated to be 25 to 30%, with severe, intractable PONV estimated to occur in approximately 0.18% of all patients undergoing surgery. PONV can lead to delayed postanaesthesia care unit (PACU) recovery room discharge and unanticipated hospital admission, thereby increasing medical costs. The aetiology and consequences of PONV are complex and multifactorial, with patient-, medical- and surgery-related factors. A thorough understanding of these factors, as well as the neuropharmacology of multiple emetic receptors [dopaminergic, muscarinic, cholinergic, opioid, histamine, serotonin (5-hydroxy-tryptamine; 5-HT)] and physiology [cranial nerves VIII (acoustic-vestibular), IX (glossopharyngeal) and X (vagus), gastrointestinal reflex] relating to PONV are necessary to most effectively manage PONV. Commonly used older, traditional antiemetics for PONV include the anticholinergics (scopolamine), phenothiazines (promethazine), antihistamines (diphenhydramine), butyrophenones (droperidol) and benzamides (metoclopramide). These antiemetics have adverse effects such as dry mouth, sedation, hypotension, extrapyramidal symptoms, dystonic effects and restlessness. The newest class of antiemetics used for the prevention and treatment of PONV are the serotonin receptor antagonists (ondansetron, granisetron, tropisetron, dolasetron). These antiemetics do not have the adverse effects of the older, traditional antiemetics. Headache and dizziness are the main adverse effects of the serotonin receptor antagonists in the dosages used for PONV. The serotonin receptor antagonists have improved antiemetic effectiveness but are not as completely efficacious for PONV as they are for chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. Older, traditional antiemetics (such as droperidol) compare favourably with the serotonin receptor antagonists regarding efficacy for PONV prevention. Combination antiemetic therapy improves efficacy for PONV prevention and treatment. In the difficult-to-treat PONV patient (as in the chemotherapy patient), suppression of numerous emetogenic peripheral stimuli and central neuroemetic receptors may be necessary. This multimodal PONV management approach includes use of: (i) multiple different antiemetic medications (double or triple combination antiemetic therapy acting at different neuroreceptor sites); (ii) less emetogenic anaesthesia techniques; (iii) adequate intravenous hydration; and (iv) adequate pain control.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Anesthesia / adverse effects*
  • Antiemetics / pharmacology
  • Antiemetics / therapeutic use*
  • Cost-Benefit Analysis
  • Drug Therapy, Combination
  • Humans
  • Postoperative Nausea and Vomiting / prevention & control*
  • Risk Factors


  • Antiemetics