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By Beth Kaszuba

They’re synonymous with minor but annoying interruptions. That’s because hiccups, while not usually dangerous, definitely interfere with your concentration, conversations and consumption of food and drinks.

And although anyone can get them — even babies in the womb — we don’t know for certain why they happen or what, if any, purpose they might serve for our bodies.

A young woman drinks water to help alleviate hiccups.
Time-tested home remedies for hiccups? Read on.

We do know that they’re basically spasms of your diaphragm. When you hiccup, your diaphragm pulls down, making you suck in air, and the space between your vocal cords closes to stop that flow. The closing vocal cords cause you to make the “hic” sound.

Hiccups might be related to low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood and irritation of the phrenic and vagus nerves, which are involved in the breathing process.

Some triggers include:

  • Stress — both good (excitement) and bad (fear)
  • Eating and drinking too quickly
  • Eating too much
  • Anxiety medications (benzodiazepines)
  • Anesthesia
  • Drinking alcohol

Hiccups usually go away on their own within a few hours. But according to Geisinger family medicine physician Ashley Lewis, MD, if your hiccups last for a few days, it’s time to see your doctor, because they can be a symptom of an underlying medical issue.

Potential related conditions range from pneumonia to cancer to pancreatitis. Prolonged bouts of hiccups are also mentally and physically exhausting, so it’s best to get them checked out.

Once you’ve been examined, your doctor might prescribe medication that can help.

As for the hiccups that are, well, minor hiccups, you can choose from lots of home remedies. These are time-tested as opposed to scientifically proven, but you can probably find a friend or relative who will swear by any or all of them.

  1. Drink upside down. Fill a glass with cold water, bend at the waist and put your head down. Take a few sips from the far side of the glass until your hiccups subside.
  2. Hold your breath for as long as possible, then exhale gently. This increases the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood — and distracts you, which might help break the cycle.
  3. Eat sugar. If sugar is safe for you, the sweet treat might help. Prefer sour to sweet? Many people drink vinegar to combat hiccups.
  4. Breathe into a paper bag. This common way of calming down also increases your blood’s carbon dioxide levels, which can help banish hiccups.
  5. Gently pull on your tongue. Preferably not in public.

And if someone nearby notices your repeated “hics,” they might step up and scare you — which could turn out to be a pleasant surprise if you’re soon breathing normally again.

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The formal name for a hiccup?

“Synchronous diaphragmatic flutter,” aka “SDF” or “singultus.”
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