Why do we hiccup?
Folk remedies for hiccups include drinking water and giving someone a shock, among others. Not all of these will work, but some may help.
Recurring or long term hiccups can indicate a serious underlying cause, such as neurological damage. For this reason, people should seek medical help if hiccups last for longer than 48 hours.
Some less concerning causes of hiccups include eating too quickly and taking a cold shower.
In this article, learn more about what causes hiccups, how to stop them, and when to see a doctor.
What are hiccups?
Hiccups are usually short lived.
Hiccups result from a muscular spasm that happens when a person breathes in bursts of air.
The Latin name for hiccups is "singultus." It comes from the word "singult," meaning "to catch one's breath while sobbing."
When a person breathes in, they use the intercostal muscles (between the ribs) and the diaphragm (a dome-shaped sheet of muscle below the lungs).
Usually, when a person takes a breath, the diaphragm pulls down to draw air into the lungs. As they breathe out, the diaphragm pushes up to expel the air.
When a person has hiccups, the diaphragm contracts and pulls down, drawing in air between breaths. Immediately after this, the windpipe closes for a moment to prevent more air from entering the lungs. This produces the characteristic "hic" sound.
Why do hiccups occur?
There are several reasons that hiccups occur. The sections below describe these in detail.
After eating or drinking
Hiccups often come after eating or drinking too much or too quickly.
The stomach, which is directly below the diaphragm, becomes distended. This irritates the diaphragm and causes it to contract, as it does when we breathe in.
Other digestion-related activities that may trigger hiccups include:
- gulping soda
- heartburn or acid reflux
- consuming alcohol
- smoking a lot
- swallowing air, including during hyperventilation
- eating hot then cold food, or the other way round
Sometimes, hiccups occur due to a disturbance in the nerve pathways that lead from the brain to the muscles between the ribs.
This can cause short term hiccups following:
- an emotional shock or stress
- an abrupt change in temperature, such as by taking a cold shower
Hiccups can also occur when a person:
- overstretches their neck, such as when shaving
- takes certain medications
- needs anesthetics during surgery
Medications that can lead to hiccups include:
"Persistent" hiccups are those that last for longer than 48 hours.
Sometimes, an episode of hiccups can last for longer than 2 months. Doctors call these "intractable" hiccups.
This could be due to a problem with:
- the brain or spinal cord
- the structures around the diaphragm or chest wall
- blood composition, such as high blood calcium levels
- the stomach, if it presses on the diaphragm
Conditions that involve hiccups
Hiccups can be a symptom of an underlying health problem. For example, they are a common occurrence in gastroesophageal disease.
Some people with cancer might also experience frequent hiccups. This may be due to their symptoms or some aspects of their treatment plan.
A wide range of other conditions can increase the likelihood of hiccups, including:
Ear, nose, and throat problems: Examples include cough, having a hair in the throat, and recent intubation.
Metabolic disorders: Examples include diabetes, uremia, and hyponatremia.
Cardiovascular disorders: Examples include heart attack and pericarditis.
Persistent hiccups can lead to:
- embarrassment and a reduced quality of life
- weight loss
- sleep loss
- sadness, anxiety, and depression
Both the causes and the impact of long term hiccups can be severe.
Learn more about what hiccups are and why they happen here.
Home remedies for hiccups
People use a number of remedies for curing short term hiccups. Some of these are useful, but others are not.
Here are some that may help:
- Hold the breath for a short time.
- Pull the knees up to the chest and lean forward.
- Breathe into a paper bag.
- Take a few sips of ice cold water.
- Have a taste of lemon or vinegar.
- Swallow a little granulated sugar.
- Drink a glass of water, which will stimulate the nose and throat.
- Hold a cold compress to the face.
- Experience a sudden fright.
Breathing into a paper bag can halt the spasms by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the lungs and relaxing the diaphragm. However, people should not put the bag over their head.
Other methods that people have tried include:
- rectal massage
- sexual stimulation
There is not enough evidence to confirm the usefulness of many of these approaches.
Learn more about how to get rid of hiccups here.
Things to avoid
The following methods are not suitable for stopping hiccups:
- consuming alcohol, hot drinks, or sodas
- chewing gum or smoking
- eating spicy food
- eating food quickly
- eating something hot followed by something cold
These techniques may make hiccups worse.
When to see a doctor
People should see a doctor if:
- hiccups last for longer than 48 hours
- they happen often
- they affect a person's comfort and quality of life
If a person has persistent hiccups, a doctor may:
- identify and treat any underlying causes
- change their medication
- prescribe medication to relax the muscles
- treat symptoms, such as by prescribing medication to reduce feelings of nausea
Various drugs can help relieve hiccups. For example, injecting 25–50 milligrams of a drug called chlorpromazine has proven effective in 80% of cases.
In severe cases, a doctor may even recommend surgery.