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Trick of the Trade: Isopropyl Alcohol Vapor Inhalation for Nausea and Vomiting

vomitingYour triage nurse complains of numerous patients in the waiting room complaining of nausea, retching, and emesis. They ask you “why can’t we have an antiemetic on hand in triage?” Turns out they might have had an effective antiemetic on hand, or rather in their scrub pocket the entire time. They just didn’t know about it yet.

Background About Vomiting

Nausea and vomiting are two of the most common presenting symptoms in the emergency department (ED) and has led to ondansetron being the most documented medication given to ED patients in the United States.1 Emetogenic events transpire from neurotransmission activation of the medulla due to feedback received from the chemoreceptor trigger zone, vagal afferent nerves, cerebral cortex, and/or vestibular apparatus.1,2 Current antiemetic treatment most commonly ordered is ondansetron, promethazine, metoclopramide, and prochlorperazine.3 Droperidol is sorely missed in the United States, as it has been shown to be one of the most efficacious antiemetic treatments in the ED, if you are okay with the akathisia apects.4 Despite ondansetron’s incredibly common use in the ED, the onset of effect (50% decrease in nausea severity) for the intravenous formulation is about 30 minutes.5,6 Futhermore, ondansetron was recently compared to placebo in a randomized controlled trial of ED patients and found no difference in nausea severity at 30 minutes.7

Iso pad

Trick of the Trade: Isopropyl Alcohol Vapor Inhalation

Initially brought to the medical community’s attention as a South American folk remedy for nausea, the use of isopropyl alcohol has been well studied in the anesthesia literature and shown positive results in decreasing nausea severity by more than 50% in a much faster time than ondansetron, promethazine, and placebo.5,6,8,9 The majority of these studies found less than 10 minutes were needed for this reduction and there was no statistical difference in rescue therapy requirements. Additionally, an observational study found that transporters were able to provide relief in 84% of their patients that experienced nausea during transit with isopropyl alcohol.10 Even a 2012 Cochrane Review concluded that isopropyl alcohol was effective in reducing the need for rescue antiemetics.11 The only pediatric study available had positive results, but concluded that the treatment was too noxious for this patient population.12

Newest study

Most recently a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial by Beadle et al. was performed in an ED population complaining of nausea and/or emesis comparing saline versus isopropyl alcohol inhalation.13 This study found that isopropyl alcohol provided significantly greater relief from nausea in the first 10 minutes of aromatherapy compared to saline (p <0.001) and is the first to look specifically at the ED patient population.

Isopropyl Alcohol Lit

The mechanism of action is not certain, but theorized that isopropyl alcohol influences neurotransmission at several sites that activate the chemoreceptor trigger zone.9

Simple Technique

Three nasal inhalations every 15 minutes and may repeat twice

Instruct the patient to inhale through their nose and out their mouth


  • Isopropyl alcohol has no reported adverse reactions in the adult population as an inhaled vapor
  • Extremely cheap and readily available
  • Potential for additional time to diagnose and treat underlying cause prior to using additional antiemetic therapy and/or give the antiemetic time to work
  • Potential to increase patient satisfaction with “immediate” treatment


Image used with written permission from Medline Industries, Inc.

Krakauer E, Zhu A, Bounds B, Sahani D, McDonald K, Brachtel E. Case records of the Massachusetts General Hospital. Weekly clinicopathological exercises. Case 6-2005. A 58-year-old man with esophageal cancer and nausea, vomiting, and intractable hiccups. N Engl J Med. 2005;352(8):817-825. [PubMed]
Glare P, Miller J, Nikolova T, Tickoo R. Treating nausea and vomiting in palliative care: a review. Clin Interv Aging. 2011;6:243-259. [PubMed]
Barlow-Savko E, Forehand B, Carlson J. Antiemetic use in US EDs. Am J Emerg Med. 2014;32(1):89-92. [PubMed]
Braude D, Soliz T, Crandall C, Hendey G, Andrews J, Weichenthal L. Antiemetics in the ED: a randomized controlled trial comparing 3 common agents. Am J Emerg Med. 2006;24(2):177-182. [PubMed]
Winston A, Rinehart R, Riley G, Vacchiano C, Pellegrini J. Comparison of inhaled isopropyl alcohol and intravenous ondansetron for treatment of postoperative nausea. AANA J. 2003;71(2):127-132. [PubMed]
Cotton J, Rowell L, Hood R, Pellegrini J. A comparative analysis of isopropyl alcohol and ondansetron in the treatment of postoperative nausea and vomiting from the hospital setting to the home. AANA J. 2007;75(1):21-26. [PubMed]
Egerton-Warburton D, Meek R, Mee M, Braitberg G. Antiemetic use for nausea and vomiting in adult emergency department patients: randomized controlled trial comparing ondansetron, metoclopramide, and placebo. Ann Emerg Med. 2014;64(5):526-532.e1. [PubMed]
Merritt B, Okyere C, Jasinski D. Isopropyl alcohol inhalation: alternative treatment of postoperative nausea and vomiting. Nurs Res. 2002;51(2):125-128. [PubMed]
Pellegrini J, DeLoge J, Bennett J, Kelly J. Comparison of inhalation of isopropyl alcohol vs promethazine in the treatment of postoperative nausea and vomiting (PONV) in patients identified as at high risk for developing PONV. AANA J. 2009;77(4):293-299. [PubMed]
Smiler B, Srock M. Isopropyl alcohol for transport-related nausea. Anesth Analg. 1998;87(5):1214. [PubMed]
Hines S, Steels E, Chang A, Gibbons K. Aromatherapy for treatment of postoperative nausea and vomiting. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2012;(4):CD007598. [PubMed]
Wang S, Hofstadter M, Kain Z. An alternative method to alleviate postoperative nausea and vomiting in children. J Clin Anesth. 1999;11(3):231-234. [PubMed]
Beadle KL, Helbling AR, Love SL, April MD, Hunter CJ. Isopropyl Alcohol Nasal Inhalation for Nausea in the Emergency Department: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2015; doi:
Mark Culver, PharmD, BCPS

Mark Culver, PharmD, BCPS

Emergency Medicine Pharmacist
Banner - University Medical Center Phoenix
Clinical Instructor - Pharmacy Practice & Science
Mark Culver, PharmD, BCPS
Mark Culver, PharmD, BCPS

Latest posts by Mark Culver, PharmD, BCPS (see all)

  • Mark Culver

    Bryan thank you for your time, quick turnaround, and valuable recommendations.
    1. Added the ondansetron, metoclopramide, placebo study, focusing on the ondansetron versus placebo results.
    2. Agree on the CTZ and made adjustments.
    3. Added
    4. Created a draft of the bullet points and noticed that 4 of the studies had similar methods and results. In addition to the ED study, Cochrane, observational, and pediatric literature, felt there were an excess of bullet points and word count limitations were exceeded for this TOT. Appreciate the chart compliment.
    5. Shortened MOA into a more succinct sentence.

  • Ian Reilly

    ED RN. Was excited about reading this quick little pocket cure. Tried it yesterday in triage, 34 F, c/c vertigo with nausea, no prior med history. I have her take 3 inhales, from my quick little pocket cure and i’m all happy like i’ve got the cure, 15 min later she’s puking about 500 ml’s of classic stinky puke in her hair, on her shirt and on the floor because of course she missed the bag. not too excited to try it again.

    • Hi Ian: thanks for the feedback. Just curious – did it even help briefly with the nausea? I wonder if the persistent vertigo ultimately triggered continued vomiting… Much like how even zofran sometimes doesn’t work in these cases (BPPV?) until the patient is given more sedative agents like meclizine or benzodiazepines. Nonetheless this experience is good to know! Thanks for sharing.

    • Mark Culver

      Ian, thanks for sharing your patient case. Would continue to give it a try and not base the decision on a “n = 1” experience. Often hear from RNs/providers that “it always works” and “it never works.” In literature from the PACU & short stay units there was a success rate (no additional antiemetic needed) ranging in the 52% range. The Cochrane review concluded with this information that isopropyl alcohol reduced the need for antiemetics. The newest ED patient population study showed no difference in rescue antiemetic use, but a significantly greater rate of nausea relief within the first 10 minutes with isopropyl alcohol. With this particular patient, even of you had given ondansetron IV, it would have been highly likely you would have the same stinky result due to the ~30 mins needed for ondansetron. Hope that your next patient is a success!

      • Ian Reilly

        ill keep you updated with other attempts. better question I have now though is ED treatment in hypernatremia, hyperchloremia, hypothermia, and hypovolemic shock with CKD III and a GFR of 24. fluid correction, pressors etc

  • Mark

    Could you comment please regarding what you feel the safety of this method might be in a pregnant patient (ex. morning sickness)?

    • Mark Culver

      This was how the use first came to my attention, multiple pregnant RNs in the department inhaling isopropyl alcohol for their morning sickness and remarking that “it was the only thing that worked for them.” The literature has never included pregnant patients, can only comment on the short-term use on an anecdotal basis. No issues with their children. N = 2.