Young woman with hiccups

Why do we hiccup?

Instant Answer

A hiccup is a quick burst of inhalation resulting from irritation of the nerves that control breathing. This can be caused by many things, but the purpose for hiccupping is still unknown.

Human throat anatomy
Human throat anatomy

More Details

Hiccups are normally a temporary condition that affects virtually everyone at some point. In fact, even human fetuses have been found to hiccup while inside the womb.

However, men experience hiccups more frequently than women, and some individuals experience hiccups for longer periods than others. Here is a look at why we hiccup, duration of hiccups and what can stop hiccups.

Reasons for Hiccupping

A hiccup, known medically as a singultus, is actually a quick burst of inhalation resulting from irritation of the nerves that control the intercostal muscles, which are involved in breathing.

A variety of situations can cause this nerve irritation, including rapid eating or drinking, muscle tension and temperature changes. Stomach distension can start hiccups by causing contraction of the diaphragm.

Vocal Cord Anatomy
Vocal Cord Anatomy

The noise associated with hiccups is the result of the glottis, a trapdoor separating the esophagus and trachea, suddenly stopping the fast inhalation. Interestingly, science has not yet found any purpose for hiccups despite exposing the mechanisms involved.

Other Causes of Hiccups

Hiccups have been linked to several causes. For example, excessive alcohol consumption can result in hiccups. Active smoking and smoking cessation can also cause hiccupping.

Consumption of solids or liquids that are very hot or cold can also irritate the diaphragmatic nerves and result in hiccups. Spicy foods can drive hiccups the same way. Finally, emotional stress, which can prompt stomach tension, can also cause hiccups to start.

Duration of Hiccups

In most cases, hiccups last only a few minutes. Less often, hiccups may take hours to go away. Very rarely, however, hiccups can last for weeks, months or years. For example, American Charles Osborne had the hiccups for 68 years.

In contrast to acute hiccups, these cases of intractable hiccups are more likely to be associated with serious problems in the nervous system.

Man drinking water from huge bottle
Man drinking from a huge bottle

Infections, tumors, physical trauma and stroke are all documented causes of persistent hiccups. Mental health problems, hyperventilation and reduced kidney function can also predispose people to long-term hiccups.

Stopping Hiccups

Although hiccups normally disappear on their own within minutes or hours of starting, a few techniques can be useful for stopping hiccups sooner.

Breath holding, which addresses the connection between hyperventilation and hiccups, can work if performed for about 10 seconds in many people. Alternatively, one can drink a large glass of cool water, which may reduce hyperventilation and relax the diaphragm through stimulation of the vagus nerve.

Hiccups have also been treated with consumption of a spoonful of honey or sugar. Finally, startling may stop hiccups but could potentially be dangerous for individuals who are at risk of heart attack.


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