HomeHealth TopicDigestive

What Are Hiccups? What Causes Them and How to Make Them Go Away

Leilani Tehani Keahi Lodevico Fraley, RN, MSNPatricia Pinto-Garcia, MD, MPH
Published on February 8, 2022

Key takeaways:

  • Hiccups may last for brief periods or for days or months.

  • Bouts of hiccups that last for less than 2 days are common and often don’t require medical treatment.

  • It’s important to see your healthcare provider if your hiccups last for more than 2 days or are accompanied by other symptoms, such as headache, numbness on one side of your face or body, or weakness.

Black and white portrait of a woman with hiccups covering her mouth. There is an added yellow graphic circle behind her.
nicoletaionescu/iStock via Getty Images

Most of us are familiar with hiccups. But what are they, and where do they come from? And can they ever be serious?

In this post, we’ll go over the basics of hiccups and their causes. We’ll also cover what you can do to prevent them and when and how to treat them.

What are hiccups?

Hiccups describe a sudden spasm (contraction) of your diaphragm. This is the muscle that splits your chest and abdomen and helps you breathe.

Brief hiccups

The quick and sudden intake of air causes your glottis to close. This is a valve in your throat that sits between your vocal cords. When your glottis snaps shut, you let out that distinct “hic” sound.

Hiccups tend to last for short periods. Most resolve on their own within 48 hours. These are called acute or brief hiccups.

Prolonged hiccups

Hiccups that last for more than 2 days are known as persistent or prolonged hiccups. Intractable hiccups describe those that last for more than a month.

People with certain health issues are at greater risk of long-lasting hiccups. These include people with health issues such as:

What can cause hiccups?

Lifestyle triggers

Hiccups often come and go for no obvious reason. Aerophagia or quickly swallowing too much air can trigger them.

Other common causes of brief hiccups include: 

  • Alcohol and carbonated drinks

  • Spicy or very hot or cold foods and drinks

  • Strong emotions such as excitement and stress

  • Tobacco smoke and other things that irritate your lungs or gastrointestinal tract

Medical triggers

Prolonged or intractable hiccups may be caused by certain medications, such as:

Hiccups may also be a symptom of an underlying illness. Examples include: 

  • Asthma

  • COVID-19

  • Diabetes

  • HIV/AIDS

  • Lung cancer

  • Meningitis

  • Migraines

  • Multiple sclerosis

  • Pneumonia

  • Pulmonary embolism

  • Shingles

Trauma to the chest or skull can also prompt hiccups. And so can issues that affect your mental health. These include grief, schizophrenia, and anorexia.

How can you make hiccups go away?

The methods for stopping hiccups have anecdotal support. This means they’re based on tips shared by others instead of evidence from strong research.

Here are a few that you can try and repeat if needed.

Raise carbon dioxide

Hiccups tend to decrease as your carbon dioxide (CO2) level goes up.

To raise your CO2 level just enough to help stop hiccups:

  • Hold a small paper bag over your mouth and nose, and inflate and deflate it as you inhale and exhale.

  • Exhale fully, and then take a deep inhale and hold for 10 seconds. Without breathing the air out, take two more deep breaths and hold for 5 seconds each before you exhale.

Stimulate vagus nerve

Stimulate the vagus nerve that runs through your ear, nose, and throat. The nerve sends signals from your brainstem to parts of your body such as your throat, lungs, and abdomen. It aids in functions such as breathing and swallowing.

You may be able to do this by:

  • Drinking ice water slowly

  • Gargling ice water for 30 seconds

  • Gently applying pressure to either your ears or closed eyelids

  • Gently pulling your tongue forward a few times

  • Letting sugar sit on your tongue for a few seconds before swallowing it

  • Sipping or sniffing vinegar

Other reports suggest that rectal massage and having sex might also help.

What treatments are there for serious cases of hiccups?

Hiccups sometimes don’t stop despite your best efforts. In these cases, it’s best to see your healthcare provider for further care. They can assess your symptoms, order tests to help diagnose their cause, and work with you on an appropriate treatment plan.

Medications such as chlorpromazine are often the first-choice treatment. But when these treatments fail to help, alternate therapies may be an option. These include:

  • Acupuncture

  • Hypnosis

  • Local anesthetic to block the part of the phrenic nerve that controls your diaphragm

  • Surgery to sever this part of the phrenic nerve

Can you prevent hiccups?

Hiccups can happen no matter what you do. But you can lower your risk for those caused by certain lifestyle triggers. If these are your triggers, try to: 

  • Avoid or limit spicy foods or those that are too hot or cold.

  • Limit alcohol and carbonated drinks.

  • Eat and drink slowly.

  • Find ways to ease stress and calm strong emotions.

  • Stay away from tobacco smoke and other things that irritate your lungs or throat.

When should you see your healthcare provider?

Seek care from your healthcare provider for hiccups that last more than 2 days. They can assess your symptoms and run tests to help pinpoint the cause. They can then work with you on the proper care plan to treat them.

Get medical care right away if your hiccups are accompanied by other sudden and serious symptoms like: 

  • Chest or calf pain

  • Severe headache

  • Numbness or weakness on one side of your face or body

The bottom line

Hiccups describe sudden spasms in your diaphragm. They may occur for many reasons but tend to go away quickly on their own. Simple remedies may help. But some may call for treatments such as medicine or surgery. These include bouts that last more than 2 days or are accompanied by serious symptoms.

References

Caballero, N., et al. (2017). Gas swallow during meals in patients with excessive belching. Neurogastroenterology & Motility.

Cole, J. A., et al. (2021). Singultus. StatPearls.

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Hodgens, A., et al. (2021). Corticosteroids. StatPearls.

Kohse, E. K., et al. (2017). Chronic hiccups: An underestimated problem. Anesthesia & Analgesia.

Lee, C., et al. (2017). Termination of persistent hiccups by digital rectal massage. The Journal of Emergency Medicine.

National Cancer Institute. (2015). Chemotherapy to treat cancer.

Petroianu, G. A. (2015). Treatment of hiccup by vagal maneuvers. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.

Petroianu, G. A. (2016). Treatment of singultus by sexual stimulation: Who was George T Dexter, MD. Journal of Medical Biography.

Petroianu, G. A. (2020). Singultus, paper-bag ventilation, and hypercapnia. Journal of the History of the Neurosciences.

Skibiski, J., et al. (2021). Barbiturates. StatPearls.

Steger, M., et al. (2015). Systemic review: The pathogenesis and pharmacological treatment of hiccups. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics.

GoodRx Health has strict sourcing policies and relies on primary sources such as medical organizations, governmental agencies, academic institutions, and peer-reviewed scientific journals. Learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate, thorough, and unbiased by reading our editorial guidelines.

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