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The curious case of the hiccups

By Eve Glicksman

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Mary Poppins knew that a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. What she likely didn’t know was that it may cure hiccups, too. That, and breathing into a paper bag, are among the folksy remedies that sometimes seem to work when hiccups attack.

But why do we get hiccups? You may be wondering. It all starts with an irritation to the diaphragm, the muscle that separates your chest and abdomen. The irritant makes the diaphragm contract, forcing a sudden gulp of air. The HIC-cup occurs as your glottis (part of your voice box) quickly closes.

You can get the hiccups from:

•Eating too quickly and swallowing too much air with your food
•Drinking carbonated beverages
•Eating hot, spicy foods
•Drinking too much alcohol
•Inhaling strong fumes
•Being highly excited or stressed
•Experiencing a sudden temperature change
•Taking certain medications
•Chewing nicotine gum
•Eating or drinking too much of anything

Hiccups can be related to a medical problem, too. While not common, the spasms could stem from a stroke, brain tumor, pneumonia, multiple sclerosis or other conditions. It could also be a side effect of some surgeries.

As far as anyone can tell, hiccups serve no purpose and generally do no harm. Fetuses are known to let loose with a hiccup. Animals can get them, too.

Taming hiccups

Wait a few minutes and hiccups will usually go away on their own. There are simple home remedies that may put an end to your hiccups sooner, though. There is no scientific proof these methods work, but you may find relief if you:

•Swallow one half to one teaspoon of dry, granulated sugar, or place the sugar on the back of your tongue.

•Hold your breath to the count of 10. (Stop right away if you get dizzy or feel any tingling. And don’t do this if you are pregnant, a senior or have medical problems.)

•Breathe into a paper bag, held around your nose and mouth.

•Drink or gargle with cold water.

•Suck on a lemon.

Call your doctor if …

In rare cases, hiccups can last for weeks or months. Unstoppable hiccups are likely a sign of another medical problem. Call your doctor if your hiccups:

•Do not stop after eight hours (or four hours if you are elderly or have medical problems)
•Recur often
•Start to tire you out
•Occur after a surgery or medical procedure
•Cause you to lose your appetite
•Interfere with sleeping
•Begin after starting a new medicine – prescription or over-the-counter

Certain medications may be used to halt extreme cases of hiccups. Acupuncture has been reported to help sometimes, too. As a last resort, a surgeon can also disable the nerve that controls the diaphragm to stop endless hiccups.


  • State Government of Victoria, Australia. Hiccups. Accessed: 07/08/2010
  • Ohio State University. Drug therapy for hiccups. Accessed: 07/08/2010
  • Pollack MJ. Hiccups. In: Bope ET, Rakel RE, Kellerman R, eds. Conn’s Current Therapy 2010. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders;2010.

 View the original The curious case of the hiccups article on myOptumHealth.com


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