What Causes Hiccups and How To Get Rid of Them

Here’s five ways to cut your hiccups short
Child with head back gargling water.

Most people have experienced the annoying, sometimes quite noisy condition known as hiccups. But why do they happen? And more importantly, what can you do to get rid of them?

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Remedies for stopping hiccups are about as mysterious as hiccups themselves. While there isn’t much research that tells us how exactly to stop them, there are some natural remedies that may help.

Family medicine physician Daniel Allan, MD, explains what hiccups are and some natural ways of giving them the boot.

What causes hiccups to happen?

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

“Hiccups happen when there’s a disturbance in the nerve pathways that lead from the brain to the diaphragm,” explains Dr. Allan.

Part of remedying hiccups is knowing what might trigger them. Believe it or not, the things that can set off a series of hiccups can range from what you consume to your environment. They can be caused by things like eating too quickly, drinking carbonated beverages or even when you feel overly excited or anxious. 

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It’s unclear if hiccups have a physiologic role. “In the uterus, hiccups may be a programmed exercise of the lungs to help with breathing,” Dr. Allan adds. 

How to cure hiccups naturally

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

Here are a couple ways to halt your hiccups: 

  1. Hold your breath briefly. “Holding your breath increases carbon dioxide levels in the lungs and may relax the diaphragm, stopping the spasms and, thus, the hiccups,” explains Dr. Allan. 
  2. Breathe into a paper bag. If you don’t hold your breath, breathing into a paper bag may help with raising your carbon dioxide intake as well. Place the bag over your nose and mouth and inhale and exhale, allowing the bag to inflate and deflate. Note: Only use a paper bag for this technique. 
  3. Take measured breaths. On the other hand, changing the way you breathe may also help with reducing your hiccups. Try taking slow, measured breaths by counting to four and really focusing on each inhale and exhale. If your hiccups are stress-induced, this will especially help calm your body down. 
  4. Gargling water. Drinking more water may help, too, but some experts recommend gargling water because it stimulates the nerves in the back of your throat. Try doing a couple sessions of gargling to see if it helps stop the hiccups. 
  5. Pull your knees up to your chest. Yes, apparently putting yourself in a fetal position may help with relieving hiccups, too. By putting gentle pressure on your diaphragm, it may help with stifling those pesky hiccups.

Other options to try

Hiccups also come with a variety of other, slightly weirder techniques that are suggested mostly by anecdotal evidence. Obviously, the success rate of these options depends on each person.

But here are some to try: 

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  1. Getting startled. Yes, this option apparently doesn’t just work in scenes of your favorite comedies. If you’ve ever had hiccups and suddenly get frightened — maybe someone sneaks up on you or you almost trip — this may overwhelm your vagus nerve enough that your hiccups go away!
  2. Count backward. If all other options seem to be coming up empty, maybe putting less of a focus on the hiccups can help send them packing. Apparently, some people recommend counting backward from 100 or reciting the alphabet backward. This will help you focus more on the task at hand and your hiccups will be gone before you know it. This tactic may also calm you down, too. 
  3. Tickling the roof of your mouth. Along with letting sugar dissolve in your mouth and sticking your fingers in your ears, tickling the roof of your mouth stimulates your vagus nerve in a way that may help hiccups go away.

How to help your baby with hiccups

Is it your baby who’s having a bad case of the hiccups? Whether it’s gassiness or taking breaths too quickly, your newborn may run into some hiccups of their own. 

Some simple ways to relieve your baby of hiccups include changing their feeding position, burping them more often or even giving them a binky to suck on.

When to see a doctor about your hiccups

The good news is that hiccups are usually short-lived. 

However, 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,” Dr. Allan notes. 

But it’s more common for hiccups to go away on their own. If you don’t want to wait them out, give these tips a try!

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