Medicines used for digestion problems | Cancer Research UK
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Medicines used for digestion problems

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This page tells you about medicines that can help with diet problems. There is information about


Appetite stimulants

These are mainly for people who have lost a lot of weight or have cachexia. They work well in some people but not in everyone. The drugs with appetite stimulating effects used most often in people with cancer are hormone drugs called

Both these drugs increase appetite and food intake in people with cancer who have nutritional problems. And they do help some people put on weight. But you are unlikely to see any weight gain for the first 4 to 6 weeks. And there is some doubt about how beneficial the weight gain really is. Most of it seems to be fat and fluid with these drugs and not muscle mass.

These drugs are also known to increase your sense of well being, which can be a great benefit to people with cancer who may be feeling very low, anxious or depressed.


Anti sickness drugs (anti emetics)

Feeling and being sick is best controlled with medicines. These drugs are called anti sickness drugs, anti nausea drugs or anti emetics. Over the past 20 years, anti sickness drugs have got much better. There are now many more to choose from. If one drug does not work for you, tell your doctor or pharmacist.  They can often suggest another you can try.

We have detailed information about anti sickness drugs in our section on feeling and being sick.


Drugs for diarrhoea

The most commonly used diarrhoea drugs are

  • Codeine phosphate
  • Imodium (Ioperamide)
  • Lomotil (diphenoxylate)

All these drugs slow the movement of the bowel. Codeine phosphate is a painkilling drug. But it is also used to treat severe diarrhoea because it causes constipation.


Drugs for constipation

These are called laxatives and work in a number of different ways

The links above take you to information about these types of drugs.



Steroids are used for many different illnesses and conditions. They are made naturally in the body. Now they are also made artificially and used as medicines. They can be given as tablets, liquids or injections.

Steroids are often used to help control chemotherapy sickness in people with cancer. They can also improve appetite, food intake and your sense of well being. They are sometimes used to help people gain weight but there can be problems if you take them long term. Much of the weight you gain on steroids is due to fluid retention. After taking them for 3 to 4 weeks, they begin to interfere with the production of protein in your muscles. If used long term, they can cause muscle wasting. So steroids need to be used carefully under the supervision of your doctor.



Painkillers are also called 'analgesics' or 'analgesia'. Severe pain can make you lose your appetite and feel sick. If your pain is under control you are more likely to feel like eating. We have detailed information about pain and cancer and about painkilling drugs in our section on coping physically with cancer.


More information about diet problems

We have information about feeling and being sick, loss of appetite, weight loss and cachexia. Taking medicines may not always be the best way to control diet problems, especially if your symptoms are mild. Some people find that complementary therapies such as relaxation, massage or visualisation help.

Researchers are developing new drugs and studying existing drugs for diet problems associated with cancer. You can read about these on the research into diet problems and cancer page.

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Updated: 8 April 2014