Clinical question: Can aromatherapy with isopropyl alcohol confer an adjunctive and lasting benefit as an antiemetic in ED patients who do not otherwise need IV access?
Background: Prior studies have shown a benefit of aromatherapy with isopropyl alcohol for postoperative nausea and vomiting, and it is both widely available and safe. Only one randomized, controlled study exists documenting use of aromatherapy with isopropyl alcohol in the ED, but this monitored for effects for only 10 minutes and did not compare it with other antiemetic therapies used in the emergency department.
Study design: Randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial.
Setting: Single urban tertiary care center emergency department.
Synopsis: The study separated 120 patients with nausea who did not otherwise need intravenous access into three treatment groups. They were assessed for improvement in nausea using a visual analog scale 30 minutes after administration of either oral ondansetron 4 mg and inhaled isopropyl alcohol, oral placebo and inhaled isopropyl alcohol, or oral ondansetron and inhaled saline. The mean decrease in nausea visual analog scale score was 30 mm (95% confidence interval, 22-37 mm), 32 mm (95% CI, 25-39 mm), and 9 mm (95% CI, 5-14 mm), respectively. The need for rescue antiemetics was 27.5%, 25%, and 45%, respectively. This study is limited by its small size, its relatively healthy population with a predominant diagnosis of gastroenteritis, and that patients who required IV catheters were excluded; therefore, it may not be generalizable to sicker patients with alternative etiologies for nausea. Furthermore, many patients were able to distinguish isopropyl alcohol from placebo inhalant by smell so the blinding was possibly ineffective. However, since isopropyl alcohol is low risk, inexpensive, and readily available, it may be reasonable to consider this as a therapeutic option for some patients.
Bottom line: In ED patients who did not otherwise need intravenous access, aromatherapy with inhaled isopropyl alcohol alone or with ondansetron was superior for nausea relief when compared with ondansetron alone.
Citation: April MD et al. Aromatherapy versus oral ondansetron for antiemetic therapy among adult emergency department patients: A randomized controlled trial. Ann Emerg Med. 2018 Feb 17.
Dr. Sayers is an assistant professor in the division of hospital medicine at the University of Kentucky, Lexington.