From friends to enemies, family to strangers, and so many people in between — nearly everyone you know has had a bout of the hiccups.
While they’re happening, they’re all you can think about. Without warning, a noise escapes. You can tell another one is coming, but it’s impossible to predict just when. So you wait for the inevitable: a second hiccup, then a third. And all you can do is hope the spasms stop soon.
While annoying, there is some good news: “Just about always, hiccups are not serious. They come and quickly resolve,” says Aminah Jatoi, M.D., a medical oncologist at Mayo Clinic who has published research on hiccups, including in BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care, the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and Current Oncology Reports. “But every so often, hiccups seem to require a more detailed medical evaluation,” she says.
What causes hiccups?
Oddly enough, experts still don’t really know why hiccups happen, “even though almost everyone, if not everyone, experiences hiccups during their lifetime,” says Mark Prince, M.D., chair of the otolaryngology department at the University of Michigan.
What’s more straightforward, however, is how they work: Chest spasms contract the diaphragm, pushing air up to the throat, closing the glottis (the middle part of the larynx where the vocal cords are located), releasing a “hic” sound. Then the diaphragm contracts again, in some sort of ominous rhythm.
It all happens suddenly and involuntarily. “In adults, hiccupping does not seem to have any purpose,” Prince says.
Can hiccups be prevented?
Since the cause of hiccups isn’t clear, prevention is murky, too. After all, it’s hard to stop something you can’t see coming. Still, researchers have observed patterns that suggest a few things that can help keep hiccups at bay:
- Eat smaller meals. “If we eat too much, our stomachs can stretch out, irritate the diaphragm, and cause a short, very limited bout of hiccups,” Jatoi says. Eating more slowly may also help.
- Limit carbonated beverages.
- Avoid irritants, such as hot peppers, alcohol and smoking. “The reflex may also be stimulated by a large variety of other factors that can stimulate or irritate the gastrointestinal tract or pulmonary tract,” Prince explains.
- Take steps to reduce anxiety and stress, which can lead to hyperventilating/swallowing too much air.
How can you get rid of hiccups?
“There are lots of home remedies,” Jatoi says. And while they haven’t been widely tested, “to some extent, they seem to work,” she adds. The next time you get the hiccups, try: