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The truth about hiccups: When is it serious and can you really stop them?

Love spicy food? It may be the cause of your hiccups. Find out what else triggers them and whether holding your breath actually helps.

They come as suddenly and mysteriously as they go. And they can most certainly stop you in your tracks or – hic! – cut you off in mid-sentence.

Everyone gets hiccups every now and then. Excessive laughing, heavy meals and emotional stimuli are some factors that can set off these little expulsions of air, said Dr Amitabh Monga, a gastroenterologist from Gleneagles Hospital.

But there are also certain things that can trigger these bouts that you may not be aware of. 

(Photo: Unsplash/Nick Karvounis)

According to Dr Melvin Look, the director of PanAsia Surgery in hospitals such as Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, these could include certain medications such as sleeping pills or even spicy food, which stimulate the phrenic nerve that controls the diaphragm.

Yes, you can blame that mala hot pot or tom yum soup the next time you – hic!


Hiccups are created when your diaphragm – the horizontal, flat muscle that separates your lungs from your abdominal contents – suddenly and involuntarily contracts, explained Dr Look.

READ: Why that heartburn might be stomach cancer – and how salty food increases the risk

This contraction draws air into the lungs and if this sudden influx of air happens when your voice box is contracted, you’ll create an audible “hic”, he said.

As to why your diaphragm does that is still not clearly known. “The exact cause of short-lasting hiccups, why they happen and what purpose they serve has been debatable with no final answers,” said Dr Monga.

The exact cause of short-lasting hiccups, why they happen and what purpose they serve has been debatable with no final answers.

However, some experts suggest that the action “may be left over from a previous stage in evolution” – a time when our amphibious ancestors had to use the same action to gulp air and breathe, noted William Whitelaw, a professor in the department of medicine at the University of Calgary, on the Scientific American website.


As irritating as hiccups are, they are common and “affect almost everyone during their lifetime”, said Dr Monga, adding that older men are more likely to get hiccups.

Hiccups usually last a few minutes and go away on their own, said Dr Look. But if they last more than two days or keep recurring for 48 hours, “you should seek medical attention to exclude any underlying medical reason”, he advised.

Most simple treatments for hiccups involve a few common mechanisms. They include interrupting or over-riding the normal involuntary breathing cycle of the diaphragm.

That’s because prolonged hiccups could point to “structural, infectious or inflammatory disorders that impact either the central nervous system or certain nerves or their branches”, said Dr Monga. “These disorders may include diseases of the stomach, liver, pancreas or the brain.”


Google “hiccups” and you’ll find lists of DIY remedies to stop them. They run the gamut from holding your breath to drinking water quickly, and the more bizarre ones such as tugging your tongue and getting someone to scare you. You could gargle with cold water till the cows come home. The question is, do they work?

(Photo: Pixabay/Rudy and Peter Skitterians)

“Most simple treatments for hiccups involve a few common mechanisms,” said Dr Look. 

“They include interrupting or over-riding the normal involuntary breathing cycle of the diaphragm by holding your breath, or breathing while leaning forward with your knees drawn against your chest. A good scare or some other distraction works the same way, too.”

READ: Why do you fart when doing yoga? Should you hold it in until class is over?

And as out-of-the-world as gargling and pulling your tongue sound, they apparently stimulate your throat, which is another way of interrupting your diaphragm’s involuntary actions, said Dr Look.

“The efficacy of these manoeuvres has not been confirmed. However, they are easy to perform and have low risks of complications and hence, there is no harm in trying them,” said Dr Monga.

If there are no underlying medical causes, your doctor may prescribe medication to stop them, said Dr Look. “Drugs that are effective include muscle relaxants, anti-nausea medication, anti-seizure medication and anti-psychotic medication.”

Source: CNA/bk