What Is a Hiccup?

Involuntary Spasm of the Diaphragm

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A hiccup is an annoying spasm that happen when your diaphragm suddenly contracts. The diaphragm is a muscle in your chest that is responsible for helping your lungs expand and contract. When it suddenly moves unexpectedly, that’s when you experience hiccups.

The sudden movement of the diaphragm causes vocal cords to close suddenly, which is what causes the familiar “hic” noise. If you experience hiccups, you’re not alone. Everyone—from infants to the elderly—experience occasional hiccups.

Interestingly, some data indicate that hiccups occur more often in men than women, although scientists aren’t sure why.

Hiccup takes man by surprise
 AaronAmat / iStock / Getty Images

What Causes Hiccups?

The movement of your diaphragm, like all muscles, is controlled by neurological messages from your brain. The movement of the diaphragm is an involuntary movement—that’s why you don’t have to think about breathing, while you do need to think about moving your arm or shaking your head. 

Scientists aren’t sure why the diaphragm sometimes spasms, causing hiccups. They do, however, know that certain things contribute to the hiccups and make them more likely to happen. A major cause of hiccups is things that you eat or drink, and how much. They include:

  • Eating or drinking a lot; having a full stomach
  • Carbonated drinks or alcohol
  • Spicy foods
  • Eating quickly

However, your eating habits can’t entirely explain why hiccups happen. The hiccups can also occur because you’re feeling nervous or excited. Some surgeries, medication, and medical conditions can also increase your risk for hiccups. 

Oftentimes, hiccups happen for no reason at all. Getting the hiccups can be frustrating, but there’s nothing you did to cause them.

Are Hiccups a Symptom of COVID-19?

It’s possible that hiccups are associated with COVID-19, although they are not a primary symptom of the novel coronavirus. According to a study published in The American Journal of Emergency Medicine, it’s possible that some COVID-19 patients who are otherwise asymptomatic present with persistent hiccups.

If you’re suddenly experiencing hiccups much more often than normal, it may be worth talking to your doctor about whether or not there’s a possible link to coronavirus.

How to Get Rid of Hiccups

Since we don’t know exactly what causes hiccups, there’s no way to say for sure how to get rid of them. One way to avoid the hiccups is by staying away from the foods listed above, or any foods that you find contribute to your hiccups.

When the hiccups do occur, they can seem impossible to get rid of. Many remedies focus on controlling breathing, but since the spasm of the diaphragm is an involuntary movement, you might find that there’s little you can do to stop it.

Still, many people try traditional remedies that may—or may not—work. These include:

  • Slowly sipping a drink, like cold water
  • Holding your breath
  • Breathing into a paper bag or otherwise breathing in a slow, deliberate manner
  • Stimulating the back of the neck or throat by rubbing it, or gargling. 

Many people will also tell you to have someone scare you, but there’s no evidence that that will help with the hiccups.

What Are Chronic Hiccups?

In most cases, hiccups go away on their own after just a few minutes. So, although they may be embarrassing, they’re not harmful.

However, some people experience hiccups that just won’t go away. This is known as chronic hiccups. It’s not clear how many people experience chronic hiccups, but the condition is believed to be very rare. 

Oftentimes, chronic hiccups are linked to an underlying health condition that causes the diaphragm to spasm frequently. The following conditions can contribute to the development of chronic hiccups:

  • Pneumonia, or other diseases of the lungs that can irritate the diaphragm
  • Brain abnormalities, like tumors, that can cause the brain to signal to the diaphragm to contract 
  • Gastrointestinal diseases
  • Mental illnesses, including personality disorders and anxieties
  • Liver and kidney diseases

Depending on the cause of the hiccups, they can be treated with medicines ranging from muscle relaxers to sedatives.

Although chronic hiccups might sound silly, they’re a serious health condition. People who experience chronic hiccups sometimes find it difficult to eat or sleep. Chronic hiccups are closely associated with weight loss, exhaustion, irregular heartbeat, and reflux.

Coping With Hiccups

Getting hiccups at an inopportune moment—like when you’re on a work call or trying to make a presentation — can be very embarrassing. Luckily, hiccups are almost universal, so there’s no need to be embarrassed. Although it might not seem professional, almost everyone has experienced the hiccups at some point. 

Although there aren’t any tried and true ways to get rid of the hiccups quickly, scientists believe that your emotional state can contribute to causing more hiccups. So, rather than getting flustered or upset, just ignore it or make a joke about your hiccups and move on. No one will be judging you for the hiccups.

A Word From Verywell

If you find yourself frequently getting hiccups that last for a long time, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor. Not only are frequent hiccups annoying, but they could be a warning sign about an underlying health condition. Getting medical attention for the hiccups might seem excessive, but if they’re interfering with your day-to-day life it’s time to talk to a doctor.

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Article Sources
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  2. Komaroff, AL. What causes hiccups? Harvard Health Letter. May 2018.

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