We humans suffer from hiccups even before we are born – your parents may remember seeing you hiccuping on your scan, or felt hiccups while you were in the womb!
But, as we get into adulthood, they can become a source of annoyance and even discomfort, causing us to wonder what exactly hiccups are anyway? And how can we best stop them?
What are hiccups?
The main reason for hiccups is an irritated diaphragm, which spasms and forces you to breathe in quickly.
When the air passes your voice box, it makes the vocal chords snap shut, creates the classic ‘hic’ noise.1
What causes hiccups in adults?
There are psychological and physical reasons that the diaphragm can become irritated.
This is because it is actually an irritation of the nerve connecting the abdominal muscle to your brain.
So, stress or excitement could stimulate the nerve, as could a lot of actions connected with eating or drinking.
For example, chewing gum, drinking fizzy drinks, eating spicy foods, or swallowing a lot of air could all irritate the nerve.2
The NHS advises that eating too fast or switching between very hot and very cold food or drink can be a causing factor, too.3
Unfortunately, the common habits of smoking and drinking too much alcohol can also be a cause of hiccups.
It is easy to think why: both activities irritate our insides. Equally, some medications designed to help us, such as cancer drugs, steroids and barbiturates can also trigger hiccups.4
Most hiccups last a few minutes. Even a bout of particularly persistent hiccups might actually only last an hour or so.
But occasionally, people can get frequent hiccups, hiccups all day or even continuous hiccups that can really impact on their lives.
In those rare cases, the NHS recommends seeking medical help if you are getting very frequent hiccups, or are experiencing a single bout that lasts more than 48 hours.5
It is possible that constant hiccups could be a sign of nerve damage due to a physical obstruction, such as a tumour, or a problem with the nervous system, such as diabetes.
It is also possible to get hiccups as a side effect of some medications, such as steroids, or as a result of surgery – any tubes that go down your throat, for example, those used during a general anaesthetic or a bronchoscopy, could irritate your insides.6
Getting rid of hiccups
There are many traditional ways to stop hiccups, from getting people to give you a scare, drinking from the ‘opposite side of a cup’ or standing on your head, but there is little scientific evidence for these techniques.
Doctor-approved methods include:7
- breathing into a paper bag
- leaning forward, pulling your knees up towards your chest
- sipping iced water slowly
- holding your breath
- swallowing some granulated sugar
- biting on a lemon or tasting vinegar
One of the reasons that breathing into a paper bag and holding your breath might help is that it causes a buildup of carbon dioxide in your lungs. Some think this might help the diaphragm soften and relax.8
How to help prevent hiccups
As long as your hiccups only last a little while, they are unlikely to make you seek treatment or prevention advice.
But it is wise to use the irritation of hiccups to help you eat more mindfully as our modern ‘on-the-go’ lifestyles can often prompt the type of behaviours that can lead to hiccups.
So that could mean fewer cans of soda, trying not to rush what you eat and thinking about whether you need certain things before you consume them, such as alcohol, chewing gum or very spicy foods.
Last updated: 16 October 2020