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What are hiccups – and how can I make them stop? Experts explain. Photo: Shutterstock

ExplainerWhat are hiccups and how to make them stop? Eating sugar, drinking water backwards? Experts on their causes and cures

  • Anything from a large meal to consuming alcoholic or carbonated drinks to sudden excitement can prompt hiccups, the Mayo Clinic says
  • There are more than a dozen ways to stop them; science is still unsure why any of them work, but it’s all about tricking your nervous system

Have you caught a bad case of the hiccups? The chances are you’ve already been offered 10 different ways to get rid of them: a spoonful of sugar, drinking water from the wrong side of the cup, a series of deep breaths. The truth is, any one of these cures might work.

Though we know what happens to the body during a bout of hiccups, tracking the specific causes of them, and cures, remains a challenge for doctors. Some cases last five minutes, while others last five months; some come from anxiety, while others come from drinking a fizzy beverage.

Here’s everything you need to know about what causes hiccups and how you might get rid of them.

How to get rid of hiccups?

Chewing gum too often may set off hiccups. Photo: Shutterstock

Many of the cures might feel just as startling as the condition itself. In fact, you’ve probably heard of asking someone to jump out and scare the hiccups right out of you. This is actually a pretty accurate reflection of the science.

According to Harvard Medical School, the idea is to create a stimulus that will interrupt the signals causing the hiccup reflex, effectively startling the nervous system out of the behaviour. There is a growing list of ways to do this. A popular one involves drinking water from the wrong side of the glass, which excites nerves that are not normally stimulated by this behaviour.

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It has been shown that when carbon dioxide levels go up in your blood, hiccups tend to subside. That’s why breathing into a paper bag sometimes works.

Deep breaths might also work – take one deep breath in, hold it for 10 seconds and then breathe in again twice more without exhaling. This increases CO2 in the body and immobilises the diaphragm. This is called the “supra-supramaximal inspiration”.

Common cures, according to AARP (formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons), Healthline and Harvard Medical School include:

Breathing into a paper bag may cure your hiccups, but stop if you feel lightheaded. Photo: Shutterstock
  • breathing into a paper bag (being careful not to get lightheaded)

  • pulling your knees up to your chest and leaning forward

  • sipping ice-cold water

  • putting a cold compress on your face

  • drinking a cup of water quickly

  • gargling with water

  • swallowing granulated sugar

  • biting on a lemon slice or sipping vinegar

  • pulling on your tongue

  • drinking from a straw

  • holding your breath for 10 seconds, then breathing in again twice

Where does that feeling of someone walking over your grave come from?

What causes hiccups?

There is no main cause of hiccups; it varies from case to case. According to the US Mayo Clinic, anything from a large meal to alcoholic or carbonated drinks and sudden excitement can prompt a bout of hiccups.

You can even get them from swallowing air while chewing gum, sucking on candy or a sudden shift in the temperature.

In some cases, hiccups can also signal an underlying medical condition – either nerve damage, a central nervous system disorder, metabolic disorders or drug use. In April, 2020, the first case report of persistent hiccups as the presenting complaint in a Covid-19 positive patient was documented in a study in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine.
Gripe water may help resolve hiccups in babies and toddlers, but consult a doctor before you try it. Photo: Shutterstock

Does gripe water get rid of hiccups?

Sometimes gripe water is offered as a solution to hiccups, especially in babies. Sold in pharmacies and online, it is a combination of herbs – including fennel, ginger and camomile – and water.

The supplement, which is not regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration, has yet to be clinically proven to help with hiccups in infants.

Before giving your baby something new, like gripe water, discuss it with the baby’s doctor.

Sugar causes irritation in the back of the throat and interrupts the diaphragm spasms that cause hiccups. Photo: Shutterstock

Does sugar stop hiccups?

A common home remedy for hiccups involves swallowing granulated sugar. The “why” here has to do with how the sugar affects the vagus nerve which connects the brain and the stomach.

The sugar causes irritation in the back of the throat and interrupts the diaphragm spasms.

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How to stop hiccups with medication

There is only one FDA-approved medication for hiccups, and it is used for cases that are not considered “mild” and last over 48 hours. Chlorpromazine is an antipsychotic medicine which has also been used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

What are hiccups?

The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio defines hiccups as repeated spasms of the diaphragm, which is the muscle just below the rib cage that separates your chest and stomach.

You make the “hic” sound as your diaphragm pulls downward in between breaths and you suck in air. Your glottis, which is the space between your vocal cords, then closes, preventing any further air from entering.

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How long do hiccups take to go away?

Most cases last only a few minutes. Bouts of hiccups can last for months or years, though, in rare cases, causing exhaustion and weight loss.

Fun fact: the world record for the longest bout of hiccups is 68 years. Charles Osborne from Iowa in the US had hiccups from 1922 to 1990. On average, Osborne experienced 20 to 40 involuntary diaphragm spasms per minute. In total, he hiccupped an estimated 430 million times before his death in 1991 at age 97.

Are hiccups life-threatening?

Hiccups themselves are not life-threatening, and most mild cases are entirely benign. However, prolonged bouts can signal a number of serious underlying health conditions, including stroke and cancer.

In short, if your hiccups persist longer than a few days, visit your doctor.

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