Hiccups: 10 Common Causes & How to Get Rid of Them

Updated in July 2022

A hiccup is an involuntary reflex of the diaphragm and other muscles in the thorax that causes the glottis to close and the vocal chords to vibrate. They usually produce a characteristic "hic" noise. 

Hiccups can occur after eating too much or too quickly, but they can also be triggered by an irritated vagal or phrenic nerve. They can also be a result of irritation in the part of the brain that controls the respiratory muscles. In some cases, hiccups can occur due to stress or rapid changes in temperature. 

Usually, hiccups resolve within a few minutes. If they persist for longer or if you experience hiccups frequently, you should see a doctor for assessment and to start treatment as necessary. 

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What causes hiccups?

The main causes of hiccups are: 

  1. Dilated stomach, from excessive eating or consuming fizzy drinks 
  2. Drinking alcohol 
  3. Gastrointestinal disease, like GERD 
  4. Electrolyte abnormalities in the blood, like decreased calcium, potassium or sodium 
  5. Kidney failure, which can lead to elevated urea levels in the blood
  6. Decreased CO2 levels in the blood, caused by rapid breathing 
  7. Infections, like gastroenteritis or pneumonia 
  8. Respiratory or abdominal inflammation, like bronchitis, esophagitis, pericarditis, cholecystitis, hepatitis or inflammatory bowel disease 
  9. Surgery, in the chest or abdomen 
  10. Brain disease, like multiple sclerosis, meningitis or brain cancer 

Although these conditions are associated with hiccups, it is not entirely known why they cause spasms in the diaphragm and thorax. 

Most times, hiccups are not triggered by a serious cause. However, if they persist for more than 2 days, or if you notice other symptoms (like pneumonia symptoms or signs of a brain injury), you should see a doctor for further investigation. 

What causes hiccups in babies?

It very common for babies to hiccup - they can even start hiccuping in-utero. The thoracic and diaphragmatic muscles in babies are underdeveloped, which can lead to more frequent hiccups. This is not a concerning finding, and is, instead, expected. 

However, if the hiccups last for more than a day, if they are interrupting the baby’s sleeping or eating patterns, or if the baby presents with other symptoms (like signs of an infection or inflammation), you should have the baby assessed by a pediatrician to start treatment if necessary. 

How to get rid of hiccups

Usually, hiccups disappear spontaneously within a few minutes, however some people can experience them for up to 2 days. You should identify a cause if you have persistent hiccups, as specific treatment can be initiated if needed. 

There are some simple ways to stop hiccups quickly, like drinking cold water, holding your breath for a few seconds, or breathing into a paper bag. These methods stimulate the vagal nerve and increase CO2 levels in the blood, which can help to stop the hiccup reflex. 

Check out other ways you can get rid of hiccups at home. 

When to worry

Although hiccups are usually not significant and resolve on their own, it is possible for hiccups to be a sign of a more serious health problem. Therefore, you should seek medical attention if your hiccups: 

  • Last for over 2 days
  • Disrupt your sleep and make you tired
  • Interrupt your speech

In these cases, hiccups may be related to an abnormality in brain functioning or in another organ in the thorax, like the liver or stomach. The doctor may opt to order a chest x-ray and other bloodwork to investigate for the cause of hiccups. If necessary, he or she will initiate the most indicated treatment.