Symptomatic management: pharmacological


Antiemetics have different methods of action (see Table 1). Some agents have multiple mechanisms of action and interact with various receptors.
The following agents are used as antiemetics (see Table 2):

  • dopamine antagonists (metoclopramide, domperidone, haloperidol)
  • prokinetic drugs (metoclopramide, domperidone): promote gastric emptying by inhibiting dopamine receptors in the stomach and (only in the case of metoclopramide) stimulate cholinergic receptors in the stomach
  • serotonin (5HT3) antagonists (ondansetron, granisetron, tropisetron, palonosetron)
  • neurokinin-1 antagonists (aprepitant, fosaprepitant)
  • corticosteroids (in practice especially dexamethasone, method of action unknown)
  • anticholinergic agents (scopolamine, hysocine butylbromide)
  • levomepromazine, olanzapine: antidopaminergic as well as antiserotonergic (5HT2), anticholinergic and antihistaminergic mode of action
  • antisecretory agents: octreotide/lanreotide (somatostatin analogues: a gastrointestinal hormone that inhibits secretion in the gastrointestinal tract)

There is a chance with a number of the abovementioned agents (scopolamine, levomepromazine and olanzapine) of anticholinergic side-effects, such as a delirium. This is especially the case with elderly patients. Metoclopramide and haloperidol have extrapyramidal disorders, akathisia, dystonia and drowsiness as possible side-effects and are contraindicated in patients with Parkinson's disease.
Antiemetics may be administered by oral, rectal, transdermal, or parenteral (subcutaneous or intravenous) routes.

Table 1. The mechanism of action of antiemetics









kinetic agent

Anti-cholinergic agent

Anti-histaminic agent

1 antagonist


++ +   ++      


++     ++      


++       +    

Ondansetron, granisetron, tropisetron, palonosetron




Hyoscine butylbromide


Levomepromazine, olanzapine

++   ++   ++ ++  

Aprepitant, fosaprepitant


Mechanism of antiemetic action unknown

Tabel 2. Antiemetics 


method of administration

Mechanism of action




Tablet, drink, suppository, injection

Central dopamine-2 antagonist

Prokinetic agent(advances gastric emptying)

Weak serotonin(5HT3) antagonist

3 dd 10 mg orally or supp.

In case of insufficient effect, high doses (40-100 mg/24 hrs s.c. or i.v.) can be considered

May worsen colic-like abdominal pain if there is ileus

Do not combine with anticholinergic agents

Central side effects: extrapyramidal side effects, akathisia, dystonia, drowsiness, especially at an elderly age and/or with comedication


Tablet, suspension, suppository

Central dopamine-2


Prokinetic agent

3-4 dd 10-20 mg orally
3-4 dd 60-120 mg supp

May worsen colic-like abdominal pain if there is ileus

Do not combine with anticholinergic agents

Few or no central side effects. Arrhythmia


Tablet, drops (buccal), injection

Dopamine-2 antagonist (central)

2 dd 1-2 mg orally
2 dd 0.5-1 mg s.c. or i.v., or
1-2 mg/24 hrs s.c. or i.v.

Dose orally. : s.c./i.v. = 2 : 1

Side effects: extrapyramidal side effect, akathisia, dystonia, drowsiness, dry mouth, vision abnormalities, urine retention, arrhythmia


Tablet, drink, injection

Reduction in cerebral oedema and possibly also oedema around the tumour or metastasis

Other mechanisms unknown

1 dd 4-8 mg orally, s.c. or i.v.
Dose orally = s.c./i.v..

Especially with chemotherapy (acute and delayed nausea and vomiting) or increased intracranial pressure

With therapy-resistant nausea and/or vomiting


Tablet, orodispersible tablet, syrup, suppository, injection

Serotonin (5HT3) antagonist

(central + peripheral)

1-2 dd 8 mg orally or i.v.
1 dd 16 mg supp.
16mg/24 hrs s.c. or i.v.

Especially with chemotherapy or radiotherapy, postoperative or with nausea and vomiting as a result of renal failure.

Constipation as a side effect


Tablet, injection, patch

Serotonin (5HT3) antagonist

(central + peripheral)

2 dd 1 mg orally
1-3 dd 3 mg i.v.
3.1 mg/24 hr transdermal

Especially with chemotherapy, radiotherapy or postoperative

Granisetron transdermal in the case of treatment across multiple days

Constipation as side effect


Tablet, injection

Serotonin (5HT3) antagonist

(central + peripheral)

1 dd 5 mg orally or i.v.

Especially with chemotherapy or radiotherapy or postoperative

Constipation as side effect


Serotonin (5HT3) antagonist

(central + peripheral)

250 µg i.v. (single dose)

With chemotherapy

Constipation as side effect



Neurokinin-1 (NK1) antagonist

1 dd 125 mg orally on day 1
1 dd 80 mg orally on day 2-3

With nausea and/or vomiting as a result of chemotherapy

Increases levels of dexamethasone

Fosaprepitant, injection

Neurokinin-1 (NK1) antagonist

1 dd 150 mg i.v. on day 1



Tablet, injection


5-HT2 antagonist

Antihistaminic agent

Anticholinergic agent

Starting dose 1 dd 6.25-12.5 mg orally a.n. or 3.12 mg s.c. (as bolus or as continuous infusion), increase where necessary to max. 25 mg dd

Dose orally : s.c. = 2 : 1

Sedation, dry mouth

Can also be administered buccally

As monotherapy with therapy-resistant nausea and/or vomiting

Is not reimbursed


Tablet, injection


Serotonin (5HT2,3,6) antagonist

Antihistaminic agent

Anticholinergic agent

1-2 dd 5 mg orally

Increased chance of CVA and death reported for use in elderly patients with dementia


Anticholinergic agent

1-2 patches of 1.5 mg every 3 days

Place behind the ear

Side effects: dry mouth, vision disturbances, urine retention, confusion.

Do not combine with prokinetic agents



Anticholinergic agent

40-120 mg/24 hrs s.c. or i.v.


With ileus

Dry mouth, impaired vision, urine retention, confusion

Do not combine with prokinetic agents.


Cyclizin Tablet, suppository

Antisecretory agent

50 mg orally 3-4 times daily 100 mg rectally 3 times daily

Do not combine with prokinetic drugs

Reimbursement only with prescription for chronic use



Antisecretory agent

3 dd 100-300 microgr or 300-900 microgr/24 h s.c. or i.v.

With ileus

Octreotide LAR


Antisecretory agent

30 mg i.m. once every 4 weeks

With ileus, responding well to octreotide

Lanreotide PR


 Antisecretory agent  30 mg i.m. once every 4 weeks  

With ileus, responding well to octreotide

Almost all research on the effect of antiemetics has been performed in cancer patients. In making the recommendations given below, no distinction is made between cancer patients and patients with other life-threatening disorders.

For patients in the palliative phase of nausea and vomiting as a result of other causes than chemotherapy, ileus, brain metastases, terminal renal failure or vestibular causes, it is recommended to choose an empirical approach with metoclopramide as first choice. In case of (a high risk of) central side effects that (may) bother the patient, the use of domperidone is preferred (see paragraph effectiveness of antiemetics on the basis of the cause  and effect of metoclopramide and domperidone).

Haloperidol is recommended for the treatment of nausea and vomiting in the palliative phase as alternative for metoclopramide or domperidone, especially if there is another indication for this agent (such as hallucinations or (starting) delirium) (see paragraph effect of haloperidol).

The guideline development group is of the opinion that dexamethasone monotherapy may be employed in the treatment of nausea and vomiting in the palliative phase if there is insufficient response to treatment with metoclopramide, domperidone or haloperidol (see paragraph effect of dexamethasone).

Treatment with levomepromazine orally (possibly buccally or s.c.) is recommended for patients in the palliative phase with nausea and/or vomiting that responds insufficiently to other antiemetics. Olanzapine is an alternative (see paragraph effect of levomepromazine and olanzapine).

Treatment with serotonin antagonists is recommended for patients in the palliative phase:

  • to prevent or treat nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy, radiotherapy or postoperatively
  • with nausea and/or vomiting that does not respond sufficiently to earlier treatment with metoclopramide, domperidone, haloperidol, dexamethasone and levomepromazine
  • as a first choice in patients with terminal renal failure with nausea and vomiting
    see paragraph effect of serotonine-antagonists).

Due to a lack of research and clinical experience, no recommendations are made about the use of cyclizine in the treatment of nausea and vomiting in patients in the palliative phase (see paragraph effect of cyclizine).

Erythromycin is not recommended for the treatment of nausea or vomiting for patients in the palliative phase, unless there is gastroparesis with diabetes mellitus or after vagotomy (see paragraph effect of erythromycin).

Ginger is not recommended for patients in the palliative phase with nausea and/or vomiting (see paragraph effect of ginger).

In some cases, the choice of agents is dependent on the cause of the nausea and/or vomiting:

  • prokinetic drugs (metoclopramide or domperidone) with gastroparesis
  • serotonin (5HT3) antagonists (possibly in combination with dexamethasone and (fos)aprepitant) with nausea and/or vomiting postoperatively or after radiotherapy, to prevent or treat nausea and vomiting as a result of chemotherapy (only during the first 24 hours) or nausea and/or vomiting with terminal renal failure
  • aprepitant to prevent nausea and/or vomiting after highly emetogenic chemotherapy
  • dexamethasone if there is nausea due to chemotherapy (in combination with serotonin antagonists), in the case of brain metastases with oedema and possible with ileus
  • scopolamine patch for vestibular causes of nausea and/or vomiting
  • octreotide/octreotide LAR/lanreotide and/or hyoscine butylbromide for pharmacological treatment of ileus

In all other cases an empirical approach is chosen, in which metoclopramide or domperidone are started (usually orally or rectally), independent of the cause of the nausea and/or vomiting. A switch is made from metoclopramide to domperidone if there are central side effects. It is also possible to choose haloperidol, especially if there is another indication to do so (hallucinations or (starting) delirium).
The effect of oral or rectal administration of metoclopramide and domperidone can be assessed within 1-2 hours, the effect of oral administration of haloperidol after 2-6 hours.

Given that metoclopramide and haloperidol are both dopamine antagonists, combining these agents for the treatment of nausea is not rational. Moreover, the chance of extrapyramidal side effects when combining these agents increases greatly. If adequately dosed metoclopramide or domperidone does not provide sufficient effect, it is not rational to switch to haloperidol. Metoclopramide and domperidone must not be combined with agents with anticholinergic (side-)effects because they counteract the prokinetic effect.
If metoclopramide, domperidone or haloperidol has insufficient effect, these agents are discontinued and the patient is started on dexamethasone 1 dd 4-8 mg orally. The effect of this can only be assessed after 24-48 hours.

A switch is made to levomepromazine if the effect is insufficient. Olanzapine or serotonin antagonists (ondansetron, granisetron or tropisetron) are possible alternatives. If there is persistent vomiting, rectal administration of metoclopramide or domperidone is chosen, or parenteral administration of:

  • metoclopramide: 40-100 mg/24 hours s.c. or i.v. as continuous infusion
  • haloperidol: 1-2 mg s.c. or i.v. twice daily or 2-4 mg/24 hours s.c. or i.v. as continuous infusion
  • dexamethasone: once daily 4-8 mg s.c. or i.v.
  • ondansetron: 8 mg twice daily or 16 mg/24 hours s.c. or i.v.
  • levomepromazine: 3.25-12.5 mg s.c. a.n. or as continuous infusion

With the exception of dexamethasone, the aforementioned agents may be easily combined with other agents (e.g. morphine) in one solution. The disadvantages of this approach, however, are that the dose of each agent can no longer be adjusted individually and a bolus injection is not wellr possible.

In relation to the choice between rectal and parenteral administration of antiemetics, the following recommendation has been made on the basis of the detailing for clinical question 3:

  • When making a choice between rectal or parenteral administration of antiemetics, it is recommended to be guided primarily by the preference and situation of the patient, within the possibilities of the care setting (see paragraph effect of erythromycin).

If anxiety and/or stress also play a role, all the above mentioned agents may be combined with oxazepam 10 mg orally 3 times daily or lorazepam 1-2 mg three times orally, i.v. or possibly sublingually.