Why do we hiccup — and how do we stop? Experts weigh in.

Your body has millions of parts working together every second of every day. In this series, Dr. Jen Caudle, a board-certified family medicine physician and an associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, explains how the body works — and all of its quirks.

Hiccups are common and typically harmless, but that doesn’t make them any less frustrating. Once you get a hiccup, more are likely to follow.

In most cases, they go away after a few minutes. But in some cases, they can last longer. Hiccup episodes that persist for more than 48 hours are called persistent hiccups. And when they happen for more than a month, they are called intractable. However, persistent and intractable hiccups are rare.

But why do we get hiccups in the first place? Experts break it down.

What causes them?

Hiccups happen when the muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen — called the diaphragm — contracts, Dr. Jen Caudle tells Yahoo Life. Your vocal cords suddenly close after this contraction, and the “hic” sound happens due to air rushing into the lungs before the vocal cords close.

“Hiccups can also cause brief, unexpected tremors in the shoulders, abdomen, throat and the [rest of the] body,” Caudle explains.

Dr. Paul Feuerstadt, assistant clinical professor of medicine at Yale University School of Medicine and attending physician at PACT Gastroenterology Center, tells Yahoo Life that this involuntary muscle contraction is caused by temporary irritation of the diaphragm. But experts are still undecided about what exactly triggers it.

Gastrointestinal problems, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), are the most common cause of acute hiccups, which are ones that last less than 48 hours. According to Caudle, “hiccups are commonly triggered by eating or drinking too quickly or suddenly swallowing a gulp of air.”

Other triggers include a bloated stomach, consuming hot or irritating food or drink, drinking too much alcohol and a combination of laughing, talking and eating or drinking.

Hiccups that last longer than 48 hours or a month can be caused by a variety of conditions, including side effects from medication or surgery, heart disease, nervous system diseases and ear, nose and throat problems. Stress and excitement can also lead to prolonged hiccups.

What's the best way to stop them?

Hiccups don’t have a cure, says Caudle, and methods for stopping hiccups are not evidence-based — but many believe they work. Scott Burger chief medical officer of University of Maryland Urgent Care, tells Yahoo Life some methods that may work include:

  • Holding your breath for five to 10 seconds

  • Performing a Valsalva maneuver, which involves forcefully blowing against a closed airway. Try to exhale while keeping your nose plugged and mouth closed for 15 to 20 seconds, and then open your nose or mouth and breathe out.

  • Gargle with cold water

Other methods for halting hiccups include drinking from the far side of the cup, pulling hard on your tongue, breathing into a paper bag, swallowing a teaspoon of honey (after stirring it into hot water to make it less viscous) or peanut butter and eating or chewing on a slice of lemon.

If you know a different method for stopping hiccups, and it’s safe and works for you, Caudle says you can keep doing it.

If hiccups are caused by an underlying condition such as GERD, Burger notes that taking your prescribed medications can help prevent them.

Are hiccups ever a sign of a health problem?

In some cases, “hiccups can be a sign of a serious health problem, but it’s very uncommon,” says Burger.

Feuerstadt agrees, saying that short-lived episodes are rarely a sign of a significant health problem. But persistent hiccups can signify health problems, such a nervous system or digestive disease.

When to see the doctor

Burger recommends seeing a doctor if you have recurring hiccups or hiccups lasting more than 48 hours. Also, see a doctor if you experience other symptoms such as weakness, headache, numbness, loss of balance or difficulty talking or seeing.

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