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We’ve all heard wacky advice on how to stop hiccups. Stand on your head, drink water upside down, get a friend to scare you—we’ll try just about anything to rid ourselves of the hiccups.
Hiccups are a nervous system reflex that causes the diaphragm muscle, located under your lungs, to contract involuntarily. Many can cause hiccups, and they can also happen for no reason. There are many home remedies for getting rid of hiccups—some based in science, some not so much.
Methods supported by science include drinking water, applying a cold compress to your face, and changing your breathing pattern. Let’s look at what the heck hiccups are and what techniques may help shorten how long they last.
How do you stop hiccups?
There’s no cure for hiccups, but there are lots of treatments that may help shorten episodes. Many cases of acute hiccups resolve on their own and don’t require any intervention.
How you handle hiccups depends on how long they last. For acute hiccups, home remedies and physical maneuvers exist that may help decrease the duration of hiccups. Most involve a sudden change that interrupts the reflex that causes hiccups.
Below are hiccup remedies proposed by physicians throughout history, and while they might work for you and likely won’t do any harm, they have yet to be proven remedies (Petroianu, 2014):
- Stimulate the ears, nose, and throat
The first set of remedies involves stimulation of the ears, nose, and throat. One easy thing to try to help shorten a bout of hiccups is to drink cold water (Steger, 2015). Using smelling salts, plugging both ears while drinking water, and swallowing crushed ice are other ways to stimulate these areas (Brañuelas Quiroga, 2016).
- Activate the vagus nerve
Your vagus nerve is a super long nerve that starts in the brain and runs down to your digestive system. Some people believe that stimulating this nerve can help alleviate hiccups. Scaring someone or applying a cold compress to your face are both ways to activate the vagus nerve (Brañuelas Quiroga, 2016).
- Altering respiratory patterns
Changing the way you breathe or doing something to shake up your respiratory patterns may shorten a hiccuping spell. Holding your breath, coughing, and breathing into a paper bag are some examples of how to do this (Steger, 2015).
- The Valsalva maneuver
The Valsalva maneuver is a technique whereby you breathe out against a closed nose and mouth, engaging your abdominal muscles. It happens naturally when you go to the bathroom or when you lift something heavy. There’s some evidence that it can help with hiccups by increasing pressure in the chest. Here’s how to do it (Petroianu, 2014):
- Take a deep breath and hold it.
- Hold your nose closed.
- Tighten the muscles in your chest and stomach.
- Hold for 10-15 seconds.
- Rapidly release your breath.
What are hiccups?
Hiccups are medically known as singultus, a latin word that translates to “sobbing” or “gasping” (Steger, 2015).
Hiccups are caused by involuntary contractions of the diaphragm and often the muscles between the ribs. The diaphragm normally contracts rhythmically, pulling our lungs down and pulling air into them to control our breathing. But when the muscle begins to spasm, it causes us to breathe in involuntarily, resulting in hiccups.
After the diaphragm spasms, the opening between your vocal cords closes rapidly. This cuts off air intake and causes that characteristic “hic” sound. Hiccups can happen anywhere from four to 60 times per minute (Steger, 2015).
Different types of hiccups
There are four types of hiccups: acute, persistent, intractable, and recurrent. Types of hiccups are characterized by how long they last (Brañuelas Quiroga, 2016). Any hiccupping episode that lasts longer than two days is considered chronic.
- Acute hiccups: These are the most common and last for less than 48 hours. Although acute hiccups can persist for up to 48 hours, these episodes often last for a few minutes or less. Acute hiccups rarely require medical attention and generally stop on their own.
- Persistent hiccups: This type lasts more than 48 hours but less than one month.
- Intractable hiccups: These hiccuping spells last more than one month (Steger, 2015). These hiccups are often caused by an underlying condition and should be evaluated by a healthcare provider.
- Recurrent hiccups: These are frequent bouts of hiccups that last longer than acute hiccups.
What causes hiccups?
Often the cause of hiccups is unknown, especially in acute cases (Brañuelas Quiroga, 2016).
Common causes of hiccups include overeating or consuming carbonated drinks. Other things that can trigger the reaction include spicy foods, alcohol, smoking, and anything that irritates your stomach or respiratory system. Research has also found that anxiety and over-excitement can bring on a bout of hiccups (Steger, 2015).
Most of the time hiccups are annoying, sometimes even funny, but there are occasions where the phenomenon might be a sign of something more serious. If hiccups are persistent, recurrent, or challenging to treat, it may indicate an underlying medical problem.
Unfortunately, the mysteries around hiccups continue. Hiccups are a symptom of more than 100 health conditions, doctors have discovered, so it can be difficult to attribute them to one issue or another. Some of the more well documented medical conditions associated with hiccups include (Steger, 2015):
- Central nervous system and brain disease or injury
- Gastrointestinal disease or gastrointestinal reflux (aka GERD)
- Heart disease
- Ear, nose, or throat conditions
Exposure to toxins and using recreational drugs can also be a cause. Hiccupping may be a side effect of certain medications, including benzodiazepines, opiates, and steroids (Steger, 2015).
What if my hiccups won’t go away?
For persistent or intractable hiccups, the first thing to do is seek medical advice. If there is another health problem at play, it’s best to treat what’s causing hiccups in the first place (Brañuelas Quiroga, 2016).
If you live with chronic hiccups, there are medications that can help. Here are some common drugs to treat persistent or intractable hiccups (Steger, 2015):
- Valproic acid
Hiccups are annoying but usually stop on their own without medical treatment.
As you can see, there are many things you can try at home to shorten the duration of a hiccupping spell. If your hiccups don’t stop within 48 hours, speak with a healthcare professional to see if there’s something health-related causing your hiccups.
- Brañuelas Quiroga, J., Urbano García, J., & Bolaños Guedes, J. (2016). Hiccups: A Common Problem with Some Unusual Causes and Cures. The British Journal of General Practice: The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 66(652), 584–586. DOI: 10.3399/bjgp16X687913. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5072913/
- Petroianu, G. A. (2014). Treatment of Hiccup by Vagal Maneuvers. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 24(2), 123–136. DOI:10.1080/0964704x.2014.897133. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25055206/
- Steger, M., Schneemann, M., & Fox, M. (2015). Systemic Review: The Pathogenesis and Pharmacological Treatment of Hiccups. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics, 42(9), 1037–1050. DOI: 10.1111/apt.13374. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26307025/
Yael Cooperman is a physician and works as a Senior Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.