Why Do You Get Hiccups? (And How to Stop Them)

The Short Answer from a family medicine doctor

Why Do You Get Hiccups? (And How to Stop Them)

Q: Why do you get hiccups, and how can you stop them?

A: Most people have experienced the uncomfortable, sometimes quite noisy condition known as hiccups. You might wonder why they happen? Do they serve some purpose?

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Centuries ago, people claimed hiccups meant a growth spurt for children. Today, we understand the mechanics of a hiccup: When the diaphragm — a muscle situated between the lungs and the stomach — becomes irritated, it begins to spasm. This spasm causes what is commonly known as hiccups.

Hiccups happen when there is a disturbance in the nerve pathways that lead from the brain to the diaphragm. This helps explain why they sometimes occur during emotional situations or temperature changes.

They can also kick in after you swallow too much air, eat too quickly or too much, or experience excitement or anxiety. It is unclear if hiccups have a physiologic role. In the womb, hiccups may be a programmed exercise of the lungs to help with breathing. Other causes of hiccups may include acid reflux and drinking carbonated beverages.

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The good news is that hiccups are usually short lived. If you have persistent hiccups that last for several days or more, see a doctor. This may indicate the presence of a medical issue that needs attention. Sometimes, certain diseases or even a medical procedure, especially those involving anesthesia, can cause prolonged bouts of hiccups.

You’ve probably heard about numerous remedies for curing hiccups, but none of these has any scientific basis, experts say. However, some anecdotal evidence suggests that an increase in carbon dioxide may help.

Holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag increases carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and may relax the diaphragm, stopping the spasms and, thus, the hiccups.

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— Family medicine physician Daniel Allan, MD

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