What Are the Causes, Risks and Complications of Hiccups?

Medically Reviewed by Carolin Schneider, MD

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Just about everyone has had at least one bout of the hiccups in their lifetime. Hiccups can result from quite a few different things, but the physical sensations they cause are usually the same for most people. They come on so suddenly and seemingly out of the blue that it’s normal to be unsure of what causes them in the first place. And, they can last for just a few minutes or days at a time. Read on to learn more about hiccups and where they come from to better understand their risks.

What Are Hiccups?

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Hiccups often feel like a quick, uncontrollable release of air. They happen when your diaphragm tightens or spasms. Your diaphragm is the large, dome-shaped muscle that separates your abdomen from your chest. This muscle plays an essential role in making you breathe. So, it’s not too surprising that sudden, involuntary contractions could cause the feeling of a release of air. Every time this muscle spasm occurs in your diaphragm, your vocal cords temporarily close off. It’s this part of the hiccup process that results in the “hic” sound you hear.

Hiccups can vary from person to person. Some people may barely feel hiccups, while others feel tightness in their diaphragm followed by a loud hiccup sound. For most people, hiccups only last a few minutes. However, in rare cases, they can last for days, weeks or even months. These long-term hiccups can keep you from getting enough sleep and may make it difficult to eat. If you have hiccups that last for more than 48 hours, you should seek medical attention. A doctor can help determine if an underlying health condition is causing your hiccups to last.

Almost all cases of hiccups happen because of one or more of the following factors:

  • Spicy foods: Eating hot or spicy foods can sometimes lead to hiccups.
  • Alcohol: People who are intoxicated are more likely to develop hiccups.
  • Overeating: Hiccups can occur if you eat too fast or eat a large amount of food.
  • Temperature: Hiccups sometimes develop when your body temperature rises or falls quickly.
  • Carbonated drinks: Drinking sodas and other carbonated drinks can cause hiccups, especially when you drink them fast.
  • Excitement or stress: Hiccups may be an uncontrollable reaction when you experience sudden excitement or emotional distress.

Who’s More Likely to Experience Hiccups?

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Although hiccups can seem to happen randomly, some people are more likely to get hiccups than others. These different factors can influence whether you have a higher chance of experiencing hiccups:

  • Sex at birth: People assigned male at birth are more likely to get long-term hiccups than people assigned female at birth are.
  • Surgery: People who have abdomen surgery or have general anesthesia for surgery often get hiccups after the surgery is done.
  • Age: Hiccups are common in newborns and infants. People in this age range are more likely to get hiccups than those who are older.
  • Mental health: People who are prone to stress, anxiety or sudden excitement are also more likely to get hiccups more often. In these cases, the hiccups may turn out to be either long- or short-term.

Can You Experience Complications From Hiccups?

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Usually, hiccups go away within minutes. But sometimes they can last longer than 48 hours. These long-term hiccups are often caused by more serious underlying conditions, such as:

  • Nervous system conditions: Hiccups may happen due to disorders in your central nervous system. Damage in this area of your body can sometimes affect its ability to control your hiccup reflex. This may cause the hiccups to last for a long time. Several conditions can lead to this type of damage to the central nervous system. These include traumatic brain injuries, strokes, encephalitis, meningitis, multiple sclerosis and tumors.
  • Nerve damage: This is the most common cause of hiccups that last for days, weeks or even months. When nerves connected to your diaphragm muscle are damaged or irritated, it can trigger hiccups that don’t go away quickly.
  • Metabolic disorders: If you have a health condition that affects your metabolism, it may lead to long-term hiccups. Examples of these types of conditions include kidney failure, diabetes and electrolyte imbalance.
  • Drugs: Taking certain types of medications can affect your body’s ability to control hiccups. Examples of these types of drugs are steroids, tranquilizers and barbiturates.

You can try several home remedies for hiccups, such as drinking water or holding your breath. Short-term hiccups are rarely a problem for your health. The important thing to remember is to see a doctor if your symptoms last for two or more days.

Resource Links:

Hiccup: Mystery, Nature and Treatment,” National Center for Biotechnology Information

Singultus,” National Center for Biotechnology Information

Hiccups: causes and cures,” National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information

Hiccups,” National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information

Hiccups. A case presentation and etiologic review,” National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information