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Senior Correspondent

Q: Are hiccups dangerous?

Hiccups—sometimes called hiccoughs—are not dangerous themselves, and are rarely a sign of a health problem.

However, if hiccups persist for more than 48 hours, you should see a doctor. Hiccups can be a sign of kidney failure, pneumonia, lung tumors, digestion problems and heart attack.

If hiccups are so severe that they interfere with your life, see your doctor. If your hiccups last for more than three hours and you are experiencing severe abdominal pain, or you spit up blood, you should get emergency medical attention.

A hiccup is a sudden, involuntary spasm of the diaphragm, the muscle at the base of the lungs that helps you breathe. The spasm is followed by the vocal cords closing. This combined action produces a recognizable sound.

The term hiccup is an example of onomatopoeia, the formation of words that imitate sounds. The medical term for hiccup is “singultus.” The Latin word “singult” means “the act of catching one’s breath while sobbing.”
Almost all cases of hiccups last only a few minutes. If hiccups last longer than two days, they are considered “persistent.” Hiccups lasting longer than one month are termed “intractable.”

Charles Osborne, an Iowa man, hiccupped continuously for 68 years (1922-1990). Osborne was entered in Guinness World Records as the man with the Longest Attack of Hiccups.

The exact cause of hiccups is an ancient mystery. Hippocrates, the Greek “Father of Medicine,” thought liver inflammation was responsible for hiccups.

Here are some possible causes that have been proposed:

  • Stomach expansion from a big meal or swallowing air by gobbling food, drinking carbonated beverages or chewing gum. The expanded stomach presses on the diaphragm.
  • Eating spicy food, which may irritate the nerves controlling diaphragm contractions.
  • Drinking alcohol, which can relax your diaphragm and vocal cords.
  • Stress or sudden excitement.
  • Smoking, which may irritate the nerves that control the diaphragm.
  • A sudden internal or external temperature change.
  • Noxious fumes

There are many remedies to transient hiccups. Some are believed to work because they build up carbon dioxide in your blood. These include breathing into a paper bag. If you stimulate the nerve between your brain and stomach, you can relieve hiccups. Drinking water stimulates the nerve.

Here are some popular techniques:

  • Hold your breath.
  • Breathe repeatedly into a paper bag.
  • Drink a glass of water quickly.
  • Use smelling salts.
  • Pull hard on your tongue.
  • Eat a teaspoon of sugar.
  • Have someone frighten you.
  • Sit down, lean forward and compress the diaphragm against the knees.

Massage of your carotid sinus may help eliminate hiccups. This sinus is located in your neck, just below your jaw. This hiccups treatment should be performed only by a healthcare professional. Never try carotid massage yourself; it can be dangerous.

For more severe, persistent hiccups, your doctor may try medications. Surgery to disable the nerve that controls the diaphragm is often the treatment of last resort.

Here are some interesting facts about hiccups:

Hiccups appear to serve no purpose.

Hiccups occur 4-60 times per minute.

Hiccups are more common in the evening.

There’s no difference between the genders when it comes to everyday hiccups. However, eight out of ten cases of persistent and intractable hiccups occur in men.

Hiccups strike at any age and in utero.

Hiccups occur less frequently as we get older. However, intractable hiccups are more common in adults.

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