Hiccups occur when the diaphragm suddenly and involuntarily contracts (tightens), resulting in a hiccup sound being produced at the top of the windpipe.
The diaphragm is a thin membrane of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen (tummy). It is located underneath the ribcage and helps to control breathing.
The medical name for hiccups is "singultus".
What causes hiccups?
Hiccups are very common and most people will get them at some point during their life. They can affect people of any age, including babies.
Hiccups often occur without any obvious trigger, although short episodes have been linked with:
- drinking alcohol
- having a bloated stomach
- eating too quickly or eating spicy foods
- drinking hot or fizzy drinks
- emotions, such as stress, fear or excitement
In rare cases, hiccups can last for a long time. If hiccups last for more than 48 hours they are known as "persistent" or "protracted" hiccups, and hiccups that last longer than a month are called "intractable" hiccups.
These longer-lasting hiccups have been linked with a number of underlying medical conditions and some medications.
Read more about the causes of hiccups.
When to seek medical advice
Hiccups are not usually serious and in most cases only last a few minutes.
However, you should see your GP if you have hiccups that recur frequently or last longer than 48 hours so they can try to identify a possible cause and determine whether any further investigation or treatment is necessary.
How hiccups are treated
Most hiccups will pass quickly and won't need any specific treatment.
If your hiccups are troublesome, there are some things you can do that may help, such as:
- sipping ice-cold water
- holding your breath for a short period
- biting on a lemon
- swallowing granulated sugar
- tasting vinegar
- pulling your knees up to your chest
For longer-lasting hiccups, identifying and treating any identifiable cause may help, and there are also a number of medications that are sometimes used specifically to control hiccups.
Read more about treating hiccups.