Hiccups occur when a sudden rush of air in the windpipe is abruptly cut off by an unexpected spasm of the diaphragm. Hiccupping involves a disturbance in the involuntary nerves that regulate the breathing process. When these nerves are triggered, a signal is sent and the diaphragm—the wall of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity—goes into spasm.
At the same time, there is a sudden and simultaneous closing of the glottis (the flap of skin at the top of the windpipe). The spasm causes a sudden inhalation, but with the glottis closed, air can’t get into the lungs, and the blocked air produces the familiar sharp "hic" sound. Hiccups typically occur from 4 to 12 spasms per minute—though in severe cases, up to 100 or more per minute can occur.
Hiccups are involuntary, repeated over a short period of time, and normally disappear as suddenly as they appeared. Unlike a sneeze or a cough, however, a hiccup is a mystery ailment with no known purpose. It is also universal: even fetuses do it.
Symptoms of Hiccups
- Sharp, involuntary spasms of the diaphragm that produce a contraction and "hic" sound in the glottis—the area of the larynx containing the vocal cords.
- Hiccups typically follow rapid eating, overeating or excessive alcohol consumption
What Causes Hiccups?
No one is quite certain of the cause of hiccups, but they can be triggered by anything that irritates the nerves connecting the diaphragm, larynx, rib muscles and breathing centers of the brain. Eating too quickly or too much, stretching of the stomach after eating or drinking, going from a warm environment to a cold one, and eating frozen treats too quickly are examples of circumstances associated with hiccups. Carbonated beverages often cause hiccups, perhaps because the carbon dioxide gas expands in the stomach. Shock, fear, or over-excitement are other causes, and abdominal surgery is also linked to hiccups. Liquor has been linked to hiccuping, too, possibly because alcohol relaxes the nerves that normally inhibit hiccups.
What If You Do Nothing?
Common self-help measures may shorten the duration of hiccup episodes, but if you’re patient, hiccups should go away spontaneously in a matter of minutes once the diaphragm settles back into its normal rhythmic pattern.
Home Remedies for Hiccups
There are dozens of home remedies for short hiccup episodes, from the simple to the elaborate. None are backed with any scientific research, and even if one of them helps you combat one bout of hiccupping, there is no guarantee it will to work for you the next time. The remedies listed here are intended to get the diaphragm back in synch with your lungs or, at the least, to distract you from the hiccuping.
- Plug your ears. Stick your index fingers in your ears for about 20 seconds. This may short-circuit the nerves that control the hiccup impulse.
- Try the ice cure. Fill a glass with ice cubes, add water, and slowly drink it. The rapid change of temperature in the esophagus may shut down your hiccup response.
- Inhale carbon dioxide. Place the opening of a brown paper bag around your nose and mouth and seal it firmly in place with your fingers. Taking small breaths, rapidly breathe in and out about 15 times, then breathe in deeply. Count slowly to 10, then release. The elevated levels of carbon dioxide in the blood may cause the hiccups to end. Repeat the cycle until the hiccups disappear.
Hiccups cannot be prevented.
Beyond Home Remedies: When To Call Your Doctor
Hiccups are normally a minor annoyance. They clear up on their own and don’t pose any medical problems. Contact your physician if hiccups last longer than a day, interfere with your work, eating, or sleep, or seem to be associated with a prescription medication you are taking.
What Your Doctor Will Do
Your physician will take your medical history and may perform a physical exam to determine if an underlying disease associated with hiccups might be the cause (which is rare). Pneumonia, heartburn, diabetes, and even a heart attack are sometimes accompanied by hiccups. Lung tumors or an infection or tumor in the stomach can also cause hiccups. If unrelenting hiccups are not related to any medical problem, your physician may administer prescription medication to control them.
The Complete Home Wellness Handbook
John Edward Swartzberg, M.D., F.A.C.P., Sheldon Margen, M.D., and the editors of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter
Updated by Remedy Health Media