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What is a Hiccough?

By M. Haskins
Updated May 17, 2024
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A hiccough, or hiccup, starts with an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm, which is the muscle at the bottom of your chest, and this in turn causes an abrupt inhalation of air and a spasmodic closure of the vocal folds, also called the glottis, in the throat. The characteristic "hiccough" sound is caused by the sudden intake of air hitting the closed glottis, and this involuntary action is then repeated several times per minute. Common causes of hiccoughs include drinking carbonated beverages or alcohol, laughing for a long time, eating or drinking too much or too fast, swallowing hot or irritating substances, and being nervous or excited. Hiccoughs can also be caused by certain drugs or medical conditions. The hiccoughs usually stop on their own after a few minutes, but in rare cases, medication can be required.

The diaphragm is a muscle that helps with breathing, pulling down when one inhales to help pull air into the lungs, and pushing up when one exhales to help push air out. An irritated diaphragm can contract in a spasmodic fashion, causing a hiccough. A similar involuntary diaphragm contraction can occur when getting hit in the abdomen, sometimes called "getting the wind knocked out of you." Like a hiccough, a cough also involves an abrupt rush of air hitting the glottis, and a sneeze is another example of an involuntary physical action commonly caused by irritation.

The word "hiccough" has been used for centuries, and is an example of onomatopoeia, meaning a word that imitates a natural sound. Other examples of onomatopoeias are the words oink and splash. The medical terms for a hiccough are singultus and synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF).

Popular home remedies to get rid of hiccups often involve changing one's breathing pattern or drinking water. These home remedies include sipping ice water, holding one's breath or breathing into a paper bag. Other popular remedies are to swallow granulated sugar, bite into a lemon, or pull one's knees up to one's chest. Very rarely does a hiccough attack last for more than a few minutes. In cases of prolonged hiccoughs, certain prescription medications can be used, for example haloperidol, metoclopramide, and chlorpromazine.

Certain medical conditions, including electrolyte imbalances and hyperglycemia, as well as various nervous system disorders and stomach problems, can lead to prolonged or chronic hiccoughs. Other medical conditions like pneumonia, uremia, and alcoholism can also cause hiccups. Hiccups can also be a side effect of certain prescription medications, including Valium and Xanax.

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