Everyday Health

Are Hiccups a Sign of Something Serious?

Originally published September 12, 2019

Last reviewed April 26, 2022

Reading Time: 2 minutes

If your hiccups are chronic, they may be more than a temporary annoyance. Find out about the underlying medical conditions that may be causing them.

Hiccups can be frustrating, especially if they occur for what seems like no apparent reason. They’re usually temporary, though, and resolve on their own in a few minutes. But, while we typically think of hiccups as annoying but not serious, that might not always be the case. Read on to learn more about hiccups, what you can do about them and when you should see a doctor.

What happens when you hiccup

The physiological process of hiccupping is actually straightforward. It occurs when your diaphragm, the muscle at the base of your lungs that is essential for breathing, makes an involuntary movement. When this happens, your vocal cords quickly close, which in turn causes the telltale “hic” sound.

Involuntary spasms of the diaphragm can occur when we eat too quickly (or too much), drink alcohol or drink carbonated beverages. Other causes can include eating something hot or spicy, a bloated stomach, abdominal surgery, certain medications or even just feeling nervous.

Tried-and-true home remedies

The first thing we usually turn to when it comes to alleviating hiccups are home remedies, and sometimes they actually work. Holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag, for example, may help.

Holding your breath or breathing into a paper bag raises the content of carbon dioxide in the blood, and in doing so, quells hiccups. Also, anything that may stimulate the vagus nerve (which connects the brain to the stomach), such as quickly drinking water, lightly pulling on your tongue or gently rubbing your eyes, may do the trick.

When hiccups may be more than an annoyance

Chronic hiccups, however, may be symptomatic of other health conditions. Chronic hiccups are associated with several underlying disorders, ranging from brain tumors and strokes to pneumonia and pleurisy.

Chronic hiccups can also impact your quality of life if they interrupt your sleeping and eating patterns. You may experience weight loss, exhaustion and dehydration. Other side effects include gastroesophageal reflux disease, also known as GERD, and irregular heartbeat.

A variety of treatment options for chronic hiccups

Since chronic hiccup cases can persist for more than a month, it’s important to visit a doctor sooner rather than later. Persistent hiccups can be treated with a nerve blockade, medications such as chlorpromazine or, in rare cases, surgery.

If you do experience chronic hiccups, a visit to your doctor will help you get to the bottom of what’s causing them in the first place and find an appropriate treatment to make you feel more comfortable.

Topics

chronic hiccups
gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Deanna Pai
Deanna Pai is a freelance writer and editor.