Easy fixes for when your diaphragm won’t stop croaking.
Hiccups are normal; they happen to almost everyone. Yet they’re highly annoying every single time you come down with them. And if hiccups don’t go away fast, they can become uncomfortable, even embarrassing. Sometimes the more determined you are to get rid of them, the longer they stick around.
What are hiccups, exactly?
Even though we’ve all experienced them many times, what are hiccups, anyway? “A hiccup occurs when there is a spasm or contraction of the muscles in between the ribs and the diaphragm, which is the largest muscle responsible for breathing,” Jason McKnight, MD, clinical assistant professor in the department of primary care and population health at the College of Medicine at Texas A&M University tells Health.
During one of these spasms, you suck in air. That air passes through the vocal cords, resulting in the telltale hiccup sound, Jennifer Boozer, DO, family medicine specialist with Keck Medicine at the University of Southern California, tells Health.
Hiccups are involuntary and something you can’t readily control. “It’s thought that a hiccup is a ‘reflex’ that occurs in the body,” says Dr. McKnight.
What causes hiccups
Experts aren’t totally sure they know all the reasons why hiccups happen, says Dr. Boozer. In general, things that irritate the diaphragm or the nerves that connect to the diaphragm (called the phrenic and vagus nerves), can lead to hiccups. Those include eating or drinking too fast, sipping carbonated beverages or alcohol, and being stressed out or really excited.
Certain medical conditions, such as acid reflux, can be a trigger, and hiccups could be a side effect of certain medications, she says. One of the most well-known hiccup-causing meds are benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety.
How to get rid of hiccups
Most of the time, hiccups will go away within several minutes, says Dr. Boozer. So typically, you don’t have to do anything to make them disappear except wait. “Sometimes, ignoring hiccups is the best thing you can do,” she says. “They usually don’t last very long and typically go away on their own.”
However, let’s say you have a Zoom presentation to give in five minutes, and you’d rather not hiccup between every sentence in front of your colleagues. What can you do to nip them in the bud? Home remedies include:
- Taking deep, slow breaths
- Drinking water or ice water
- Letting someone or something scare you
- Biting into a lemon
- Holding your breath for 5-10 seconds
- Pulling on your tongue
- Blowing up a balloon
- Breathing into a paper bag
- Sitting down and pulling your knees to your chest for one minute
- Putting a cold compress on your face
You might also try the valsava maneuver, says Dr. McKnight. To do it, pinch your nose and hold your breath, then force yourself to exhale and bear down as if you’re going to poop. Hold for about 10 seconds. This might be one you want to attempt if you’re at home by yourself versus in public, though.
Unfortunately, experts say that none of these “cures” emerge as the winning remedy. But the good news is, they might get rid of your hiccups, and most are safe to try, says Dr. McKnight.
While these remedies sound rather random, they all tap into a couple of mechanisms, says Dr. Boozer. They either disrupt the pattern of diaphragm spasms (such as holding your breath) or irritate the phrenic or vagus nerves to disrupt the nerve impulse (such as putting a cold compress on your face or gargling).
In the case of pulling your knees up to your chest, this might work by putting pressure on the diaphragm, notes a 2015 systematic review of hiccup cures in Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. (BTW, the author of that study said that exhaling and then holding your breath was their preferred cure.)
Speaking of attempting these remedies, not everyone should try them. Dr. McKnight notes that “if you have cardiac or respiratory disease, where shortness of breath is common, then it might not be a good idea to attempt holding your breath for a long period of time.” If you’re not sure if a remedy is safe for you, consult your doctor first.
How to prevent hiccups
If you get hiccups a lot, pay attention to when you’re getting them in the first place. “If you notice that you tend to have hiccups in similar situations—overeating, consuming spicy foods, exposure to irritants—then you may have to avoid those situations going forward if the hiccups are truly a nuisance to you,” says Dr. McKnight. Should you notice that stress sets off your hiccups, consider slowing down and building more opportunities for self-care.
When to see a doctor for hiccups
It’s rare, but sometimes serious medical conditions can cause hiccups, says Dr. McKnight. Those can be problems with the central nervous system or even a tumor.
If your hiccups don’t go away within two days (and yes, that’s a long time to be saddled with the hiccups), check in with your doctor; medication might be able to stop them. For frequent cases of hiccups, your physician might want you to undergo testing. If an underlying cause for your hiccups is found (like you have acid reflux), then your doctor will work with you on treating the condition.
Indeed, hiccups aren’t just a small problem—they can take a real toll on your quality of life when you have them, points out a 2019 review in the journal Current Oncology Reports. Dr. Boozer concurs, saying: “Long-term, hiccups can cause disruption through trouble eating and sleeping. We want to make sure that nothing more serious is going on. It’s important to get medical attention because in rare cases, they do last a long time.”
And who knows? Maybe your hiccups went away during the time it took you to read this. You’re welcome.