Overview

Hiccups are involuntary contractions of the diaphragm — the muscle that separates your chest from your abdomen and plays an important role in breathing. Each contraction is followed by a sudden closure of your vocal cords, which produces the characteristic "hic" sound.

Hiccups may result from a large meal, alcoholic or carbonated beverages or sudden excitement. In some cases, hiccups may be a sign of an underlying medical condition. For most people, a bout of hiccups usually lasts only a few minutes. Rarely, hiccups may persist for months. This can result in weight loss and exhaustion.

Symptoms

Hiccupping is a symptom. It may sometimes be accompanied by a slight tightening sensation in your chest, abdomen or throat.

When to see a doctor

Make an appointment to see your doctor if your hiccups last more than 48 hours or if they are so severe that they cause problems with eating, sleeping or breathing.

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Causes

The most common triggers for hiccups that last less than 48 hours include:

  • Drinking carbonated beverages
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Eating too much
  • Excitement or emotional stress
  • Sudden temperature changes
  • Swallowing air with chewing gum or sucking on candy

Hiccups that last more than 48 hours may be caused by a variety of factors, which can be grouped into the following categories.

Nerve damage or irritation

A cause of long-term hiccups is damage to or irritation of the vagus nerves or phrenic nerves, which serve the diaphragm muscle. Factors that may cause damage or irritation to these nerves include:

  • A hair or something else in your ear touching your eardrum
  • A tumor, cyst or goiter in your neck
  • Gastroesophageal reflux
  • Sore throat or laryngitis

Central nervous system disorders

A tumor or infection in your central nervous system or damage to your central nervous system as a result of trauma can disrupt your body's normal control of the hiccup reflex. Examples include:

  • Encephalitis
  • Meningitis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Stroke
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Tumors

Metabolic disorders and drugs

Long-term hiccups can be triggered by:

  • Alcoholism
  • Anesthesia
  • Barbiturates
  • Diabetes
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Kidney disease
  • Steroids
  • Tranquilizers

Risk factors

Men are much more likely to develop long-term hiccups than are women. Other factors that may increase your risk of hiccups include:

  • Mental or emotional issues. Anxiety, stress and excitement have been associated with some cases of short-term and long-term hiccups.
  • Surgery. Some people develop hiccups after undergoing general anesthesia or after procedures that involve abdominal organs.

Complications

Prolonged hiccups may interfere with:

  • Eating
  • Sleeping
  • Speech
  • Wound healing after surgery

May 24, 2017
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  3. Lembo AJ. Overview of hiccups. http://uptodate.com/home. Accessed Feb. 6, 2017.
  4. Steger M, et al. Systemic review: The pathogenesis and pharmacological treatment of hiccups. Alimentary Pharmacology and Therapeutics. 2015;42:1037.