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Hold Your Breath! Know What Causes Hiccups and How to Get Rid of Them

What Causes Hiccups and How to Get Rid of Them
Coming across someone who is having a tough time trying to get rid of hiccups can be funny, but having to go through the same can be quite irritating. While most of us undergo the seemingly traumatic experience at some point in life, not many people know what triggers the same.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Apr 9, 2018
Imagine a person having hiccups continuously for 68 years! That may sound bizarre, but Charles Osborne, hailing from Iowa, United States, "hiccuped" his way into the Guinness Book of World Records as the person with the longest attack of hiccups. Osborne's record-breaking bout of hiccups began in 1922 following a bizarre incident, wherein a 300-pound hog collapsed on him, and came to an abrupt end in February, 1990.

While Osborne's trigger of hiccups was by far the most intriguing ever heard, there are plenty of perfectly normal -- and simple -- causes of this condition, ranging from gastric distention to psychogenic factors, like stress and excitement. Brief episodes of hiccups, which one experiences once in while, don't need much attention as they tend to go on their own. Recurring episodes though, are caused as a result of some underlying pathophysiological process, requiring prompt medical attention, and hence should not be ignored.
What Are Hiccups?
Hiccups are a series of spasmodic contractions of the diaphragm, i.e., a sheet of muscle extending across the bottom of the rib cage. It is an involuntary action involving the reflex arc -- a neural pathway that mediates a reflex action. In medical terminology, it is referred to as 'singultus' or 'synchronous diaphragmatic flutter' (SDF).
What Causes Hiccups?
Our diaphragm usually expands and contracts we breathe. At times, it contracts involuntarily all of a sudden, and we end up taking in air more quickly. Usually, the air we breathe passes past the glottis into our lungs, but when the diaphragm contracts, the epiglottis (the cartilaginous flap protecting the glottis) closes all of sudden and restricts the airflow. This, in turn, causes our vocal cords to close all of sudden, and that produces the characteristic 'hic' sound associated with hiccups.
What exactly causes the complex process to occur is a subject of debate. It's usually believed that a full stomach as a result of eating too much, or too fast, swallowing too much of air, and stress, or excitement, trigger a bout of hiccups. Even smoking and alcohol consumption are known to trigger hiccups at times; the latter being one of the most prominent triggers. In such cases, hiccups go on their own and so, are not considered serious, but it's not the same about persistent hiccups.
Persistent hiccups can be a sign of some underlying complication. While this is no rule of thumb, hiccups lasting for 48 hours to 1 month (protracted hiccups), or more than a month (intractable hiccups) are considered serious. A person is most likely to experience persistent hiccups when he is involved in excessive drug, or alcohol abuse. Similarly, ailments like renal failure and hyperglycemia are also known to trigger persistent hiccups.

In children, common causes of hiccups include overeating, consumption of carbonated liquids, sudden excitement, fear, etc. Overeating and carbonated liquids cause the stomach to distend, and trigger spasmodic contractions. In these cases, hiccups eventually disappear on their own. It is difficult to determine the causes of hiccups in babies. Usually, these are triggered as a result of taking in too much of air while feeding. Though the instances are quite rare, hiccups in infants are triggered by underlying health problems, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), at times.

A pregnant woman can experience bouts of hiccups at any time during the pregnancy. The frequency, however, is unusually high during the end of first trimester and the beginning of second trimester. This is mainly attributed to the fact that the rate of inhaling and exhaling during pregnancy is around 30-40 percent higher compared to normal circumstances.

A person is also likely to experience sudden bouts of hiccups after surgery. Such bouts are particularly common in people recovering from gastric, or back surgery. In some cases, post-surgery hiccups are also caused as a result of reaction with the anesthetic. Any damage to phrenic nerve, which originates in the neck and goes to the diaphragm, can also result in hiccups.
How to Get Rid of Hiccups?
Brief episodes of hiccups usually terminate on their own, or respond to simple remedies, like drinking a glass of water in one go, or holding your breath. In fact, one of the most popular remedies of getting rid of hiccups is to sip 10 gulps of water slowly without stopping to breathe in-between.
Quite a few hiccup remedies -- especially those involving controlled breathing -- stress on increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the body. It is believed that holding one's breath, or slow rhythmic breathing allows the lungs to expand and relaxes the diaphragm to stop hiccups
hiccups remedies
Some widely recommended hiccup remedies are:

» Breathe continuously into a paper bag.
» Breathe slowly (allowing your lungs to expand and contract completely.)
» Take a deep breath and hold it as long as possible.
» Simply cover your mouth.
» Put a teaspoon of sugar under your tongue, and let it dissolve.
» Gargle with cold water.
» Suck a wedge of fresh lime, or small pieces of fresh ginger.
» Keep an ice cube in your mouth.
» Distract yourself by talkin, or singing.
» Stick your tongue out.
If you intend to help someone with a bout of hiccup, and none of the aforementioned remedies are of any avail, you can opt for the slightly unconventional methods, like frightening that person, or tickling him. (If you yourself are on the receiving end, getting someone to scare, or tickle you might just work.)

Antispasmodic agents, like chamomile tea, are also known to help in getting rid of hiccups. The best cure for hiccups resulting from some underlying medical condition would be to treat the condition itself. On the other hand, if the hiccups are triggered by some medication, after surgery, or due to some medical complication, it's wise to consult a doctor.

Although hiccups are harmless, they should not be ignored -- especially if they occur frequently or, if they continue for a long time. If hiccups continue for more than 24 hours in adults (or more than 3 hours in children), one should immediately consult a doctor.

Disclaimer: This article is purely for the purpose of providing information, and should not be used as a substitute for medical advice.