Hiccups happen when your diaphragm, a muscle between your chest and your stomach, suddenly contracts.

Summary

Your diaphragm helps control your breathing, so when it contracts, you take in a sharp breath. Your vocal cords (glottis) at the top of your throat then close to control the intake of air, producing the typical 'hic' sound.

Anyone can get hiccups, though men are much more likely to get long-term hiccups than women.

In most cases, hiccups last only a few minutes, go away on their own and don’t need treatment. Hiccups that last more than two days, or keep coming back, could be a sign of an underlying medical condition.

Causes of hiccups

Short bout of hiccups

A short (transient) bout of hiccups often starts or stops without an obvious cause. Things that can irritate your diaphragm and trigger transient hiccups include:

  • Drinking fizzy drinks or alcohol
  • Eating big meals, especially spicy food
  • Feeling stressed, excited or anxious
  • Swallowing air

Avoiding these triggers may help you get fewer bouts of hiccups.

Long-term hiccups

Hiccups that last more than two days (persistent hiccups) or that keep coming back (recurrent hiccups) may have an underlying medical cause.

This could be a condition that’s affecting your diaphragm or the nerves in your head and neck that control its movements. These include:

  • Damage to your eardrum
  • Acid reflux (gastro-oesophageal reflux), when stomach contents come back up into your food pipe (oesophagus)
  • Swelling inside your neck that’s pressing on a nerve
  • Sore throat (laryngitis)

Long-term hiccups can also be a side effect of a medicine you’re taking or can start after you’ve had stomach surgery or a general anaesthetic.

You’re more likely to get long-term hiccups if you have a condition that affects your metabolism, the process that converts food to energy. These include:

  • Alcoholism
  • Diabetes
  • Electrolyte imbalance – a disorder of salts and minerals that regulate the body’s systems
  • Kidney disease

In rare cases, long-term hiccups may also be a symptom of conditions that affect your central nervous system, such as:

  • Brain inflammation or injury
  • Meningitis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Tumour

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

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Getting a diagnosis for hiccups

See your GP if your hiccups last for more than 48 hours, if they keep coming back, or they’re making it harder to eat, drink or sleep normally.

Your GP will diagnose hiccups from your symptoms. They may refer you for other tests and scans to find out what’s causing them, such as:

  • X-ray
  • MRI scan
  • CT scan
  • Blood test
  • Endoscopy – an examination using a tiny camera on the end of a flexible tube to see inside your throat

Treatments for hiccups

In most cases, you won’t need treatment for hiccups. Some people find these self-help hiccup cures get rid of hiccups, though there’s no proof:

  • Gargling with iced water
  • Holding your breath for a short time
  • Sipping cold water
  • Breathing into a paper bag

If your hiccups are affecting your everyday life, your GP might recommend:

  • Treatment for the underlying problem, or changing a medicine that’s causing side effects
  • Medication to control your hiccups

Specialist treatments include:

  • Injecting anaesthetic into the nerves that control hiccups
  • An operation to stimulate the main nerve that affects hiccups using a battery-operated implant

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