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Hiccups

Topic Overview

What are hiccups?

Hiccups occur when a spasm contracts the diaphragm, a large sheet of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. This spasm causes an intake of breath that is suddenly stopped by the closure of the vocal cords (glottis). This closure causes the characteristic "hiccup" sound.

What causes hiccups?

A very full stomach can cause bouts of hiccups that go away on their own. A full stomach can be caused by:

  • Eating too much food too quickly.
  • Drinking too much alcohol.
  • Swallowing too much air.
  • Smoking.
  • A sudden change in stomach temperature, such as drinking a hot beverage and then a cold beverage.
  • Emotional stress or excitement.

How long do hiccups last?

Hiccups usually stop within a few minutes to a few hours.

Hiccups that last longer than 48 hours are called persistent hiccups. Hiccups that last longer than a month are called intractable hiccups. While very rare, intractable hiccups can cause exhaustion, lack of sleep, and weight loss. Both persistent and intractable hiccups may be a sign of a more serious health problem and must be checked by a doctor.

There are many known causes of persistent or intractable hiccups, including:

  • Central nervous system problems, such as cancer, infections, stroke, or injury.
  • Problems with the chemical processes that take place in the body (metabolic problems), such as decreased kidney function or hyperventilation.
  • Irritation of the nerves in the head, neck, and chest (vagus or phrenic nerve).
  • Anesthesia or surgery.
  • Mental health problems.

How are hiccups treated?

Most bouts of hiccups go away on their own within a few minutes to a few hours and do not require any treatment.

Many home remedies are used to treat hiccups. Most of them involve increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the blood, which usually stops hiccups. Some of these remedies include:

  • Holding your breath and counting slowly to 10.
  • Breathing repeatedly into a paper bag for a limited period of time.
  • Quickly drinking a glass of cold water.
  • Eating a teaspoon of sugar or honey.

The treatment for persistent or intractable hiccups depends on the underlying cause of the hiccups and may range from medicine to acupuncture or hypnosis. Sometimes several treatments may be tried before persistent or intractable hiccups are controlled. If you have hiccups that last a few days or longer, your doctor may conduct tests to rule out a more serious problem.

Who is affected by hiccups?

Hiccups affect males more often than females. Hiccups occur in practically every human being, including babies and older adults.

Related Information

Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer H. Michael O'Connor, MD - Emergency Medicine
Last Revised July 5, 2013

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