Why Do People Get Hiccups?

••• Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Paul Joseph

Hiccups are always good for a bit of comic relief in the movies or on TV, or even when a friend of yours has a noisy but mild case. In real life, though, hiccups range from a minor nuisance in the short term to a major problem if prolonged. Hiccups can be a symptom of a serious underlying illness as well.

What Are Hiccups?

Hiccups are a combination of two abrupt and involuntary movements. The first is a sudden contraction of your diaphragm, which is your breathing muscle. The diaphragm separates your chest cavity from your stomach area. The contraction is followed immediately by an abrupt closing of your vocal cords. The sound they make as they snap shut is the characteristic "hic" noise that a hiccuping person makes.

What Causes Hiccups?

There are known triggers that can cause hiccups, but it's not always possible to know the answer to why a person gets hiccups. Sometimes their onset can be a bit of a mystery, and they just seem to happen for no particular reason. But certain foods, air intake patterns or emotional states may lead to a case of the hiccups. Among them:

  • Eating a large meal
  • Drinking carbonated beverages, like soda, beer or seltzer
  • Drinking alcohol (the classic hiccuping drunk)
  • Sudden excitement or pronounced emotion
  • Swallowing air (for example, when sucking vigorously on hard candy)
  • Sudden temperature changes

Certain foods are also known to cause hiccups. Hot peppers, in particular, contain capsaicin, which is known to interact with receptors in your diaphragm and lead to a quick case of the hiccups.

Treatment for Hiccups

There are tons of home remedies for a mild case of hiccups that seem to work for some people and have little effect on others. Most are fairly easy to try, including:

  • Hold your breath
  • Quickly drink a glass of water
  • Scare treatment: Have someone frighten you unexpectedly
  • Bite a lemon
  • Gargle
  • Smelling salts

Serious Hiccups

Long-term hiccups are a frustrating and dangerous condition, often caused by damage to the vagus nerve or phrenic nerve, which are involved with diaphragm. Tumors or certain diseases like encephalitis and meningitis can also damage the ordinary nervous system control mechanisms and lead to prolonged cases of hiccups. Overuse of alchohol, barbituates, steroids and other substances have also been associated with serious and long-term cases of hiccups.

Serious cases of hiccups can be treated with medicines, including muscle relaxants, sedatives and even some stimulants.

For any case of hiccups lasting more than a few hours, it's a good idea to seek professional medical advice.


About the Author

David Sarokin is an ecologist and noted environmentalist with more than 30 years experience in environmental policy. He created the nation's Right-to-Know program for chemical pollutants, and is the author of Missed Information (MIT Press, 2016), detailing how our social systems like health care, finance and government can be improved with better quality information.

Photo Credits

  • Image by Flickr.com, courtesy of Paul Joseph