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Developing a Strong Stomach When Becoming a Nurse

Sep 13, 2019

The path to becoming a nurse is an exciting one. In nursing school, you learn all about the human body, pathophysiology, and patient care. But during the course of your hands-on learning, you also encounter a world of stomach-churning sights and smells that hit your senses hard. You certainly don't want to be gagging or fainting as you care for patients.

Does a weak stomach mean that you're not cut out for nursing? Not at all. Between suctioning bodily fluids and smelling vicious odors, even seasoned nurses have to fight their gag reflex sometimes. Yet, veteran nurses have mastered ways to conquer queasiness and get the job done in spite of it. Here are some of their tried-and-true tricks.

Handling odors.

As you're becoming a nurse, you'll discover that many illnesses, diseases, and medical conditions can provoke strong odors. Gangrenous wounds, burn trauma, and more create smells that can make anyone gag. But having good bedside manner means making the patient feel comfortable and cared for at all times—no gagging allowed.

To cope with foul odors:

  • Breathe only through the mouth. If odors tend to make you gag, breathing through your mouth can help. You can do this discreetly, too; no one will know you're avoiding the unpleasant odor.

  • Mentally prepare for odors. As you read patient charts, try to identify conditions that may be malodorous, and then steel yourself mentally before entering the room or greeting the patient. A little mental preparation goes a long way toward calming the gag reflex.

  • Apply a dab of mentholated gel just below the nostrils. The menthol scent overrides any environmental odors and blocks their smell.

  • Apply flavored lip balm below the nostrils. Lip balm is a lot like mentholated gel, but it's more subtle. You can also choose a scent that you like.

  • Wear a mask. Nurses are required to wear masks when working with patients who have infectious diseases like MRSA, but they may also wear a mask if they feel unwell or queasy. Applying a few drops of essential oil to the mask helps you make it through even the worst-smelling situations. Operating room staff often use this trick to avoid gagging during potentially smelly surgeries.

Coping with grisly sights.

The pathway to becoming a nurse is filled with harsh sights that might make your stomach churn. Seeing copious bleeding or watching a surgeon open a patient's abdomen might make anyone feel light-headed. To better deal with the horrific sights of nursing, try these tactics:

  • Practice controlled breathing. When entering a situation that might make you feel faint, learn how to focus on your breathing. Take deep breaths in through your nose, and slowly release them through your mouth. With practice, this technique will become second nature, and you'll be able to deliver patient care while also staying focused on your own breath.

  • Dress to stay cool. Heat can provoke faintness, so always dress to stay as cool as possible when performing patient care. When light-headedness strikes, splash some cool water on your face when you're able.

  • Sniff an alcohol prep pad. This trick helps with both faintness and nausea. Simply tear open a prep pad and hold it under your nose for a few breaths.

  • Develop tunnel vision. Instead of thinking about your own queasiness, learn to focus on the patient and the tasks you need to perform as a nurse. Activities like dressing an infected wound become much less grisly if you focus on assessing the wound bed, identifying tissue layers, and so on.

  • Expose yourself to unsettling sights. The more you expose yourself to gruesome sights, the less they will affect you. Whenever possible, work with a fellow nursing student to become more comfortable with sights that make you squeamish. If the sight of blood bothers you, for example, practice IV starts on each other until you're more comfortable.

  • Eat breakfast. It sounds counterintuitive but having some food in your stomach before encountering these troubling sights will keep your blood sugar up and provide fuel to your body. You’re much more likely to pass out from not eating than to vomit from eating in these situations. 

  • Be Empathetic. Patients and those you care for may know a smell or odor is present and already a problem. Consider how you would want your family or yourself be cared for. Be compassionate and show empathy. 

Stay focused on your goal.

As you navigate your nursing education, and eventually your bachelor's degree and future leadership positions in the medical field, be sure to stay focused on your overall goal of becoming a nurse and medical professional. Remind yourself that the nursing profession requires you to meet and overcome challenges. Developing a strong stomach is just one nursing lesson among the many you'll learn during your journey.

In the meantime, talk with your instructors and mentors about how to manage these situations so you can deliver high-quality patient care—without the fainting bouts.

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