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Why do we hiccup and how can we stop them?

Posted July 11, 2021 by Yan Sun, MD

A hand that says stop hiccups

We’ve all experienced it at one time or another: the dreaded hiccups. They can be funny at first, if not hysterical, but they quickly become a nuisance. Hiccups affect everyone, from babies in utero all the way up to senior citizens, but what are these loud, noisy, disruptive and sometimes uncomfortable hiccups?

Hiccups occur when the diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle between the lungs and the stomach, spasms from irritation. The diaphragm pulls down when you inhale to let air into your lungs and then relaxes when you exhale, so air can flow back out of your lungs and exit your nose and mouth.

If the diaphragm spasms — or involuntary contracts — it forces you to suddenly suck air into your throat, where it hits your voice box. That causes your vocal cords to snap shut, which creates the infamous hiccup sound.

The diaphragm usually becomes irritated if there’s a disturbance in the nerve pathways from the brain to the diaphragm. Some common causes for hiccups include:

  • Swallowing too much air
  • Eating too quickly or too much
  • Feeling nervous or excited
  • Acid reflux
  • Drinking carbonated beverages or too much alcohol
  • Sudden temperature changes
  • While you might think having a friend scare you, drinking water quickly or breathing smelly salts will cure you of hiccups, there’s no scientific evidence on these common home remedies. But, some medical experts agree holding your breath for several seconds and then breathing out slowly, or breathing into a paper bag might do the trick to rid yourself of hiccups.

    Both of these remedies increase carbon dioxide levels in the lungs, which is believed to relax the diaphragm and stop the spasms.

    Hiccup bouts (<48 hours in duration) are typically not caused by serious disease; most people occasionally experience brief hiccups that resolve on their own in a few minutes. By contrast, hiccups lasting >48 hours occur rarely and may be caused by serious disease.

    Most etiologies, or causes, of prolonged hiccups are structural, infectious, or inflammatory disorders. Sometimes a sore throat, a tumor or cyst in the neck can cause persistent hiccups. Chronic medical conditions, such as encephalitis or meningitis, diabetes or kidney failure, can also cause long-term hiccups. Even medical procedures involving anesthesia can cause persistent hiccups.If you experience hiccups for several days or more, or if they are severe enough to interfere with eating, breathing or sleeping, it’s time to talk with your healthcare provider.

    Your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to put an end to those uncomfortable hiccups.


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    If your situation is an emergency, call 911.