A hiccup (also spelled hiccough) is an involuntary contraction (myoclonic jerk) of the diaphragm that may repeat several times per minute. The hiccup is an involuntary action involving a reflex arc.[1] Once triggered, the reflex causes a strong contraction of the diaphragm followed about a quarter of a second later by closure of the vocal cords, which results in the "hic" sound.

Other namesSingultus, hiccough, synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (SDF)
  • /ˈhɪkəp, -ʌp/ HIK-əp, -up

Hiccups may occur individually, or they may occur in bouts. The rhythm of the hiccup, or the time between hiccups, tends to be relatively constant. A bout of hiccups generally resolves itself without intervention, although many home remedies are often used to attempt to shorten the duration.[2] Medical treatment is occasionally necessary in cases of chronic hiccups.

Signs and symptoms

A hiccup consists of a single or a series of breathing diaphragm spasms, of variable spacing and duration, and a brief (less than one half second), unexpected, shoulder, abdomen, throat, or full body tremor. Hiccups may present as an audible chirp, squeak, "hupp", or if controlled, a quick inhaling gasp, sigh, or sniff. They may also present as brief but distracting or painful interruptions in normal breathing, with sudden momentary pain of the throat, chest, or abdomen.


Pathophysiological causes

Hiccups may be triggered by a number of common human conditions. In rare cases, they can be a sign of serious medical problems.

Pre-phrenic nucleus irritation of medulla

CNS disorders

Nerve damage

Other known associations

  • Although no clear pathophysiological mechanism has been described, hiccups is known to have been the initial symptom of Plasmodium vivax malaria in at least one documented case.[12]

Evolutionary causes

Clearance of air from stomach

One suggestion is that hiccups may have evolved along with other reflexes developed in mammals that allow them to coordinate suckling milk and breathing.[6] Hiccups are only found in mammals, and are most common in infants, becoming rarer as mammals age. This may suggest that they evolved to allow air trapped in the stomach of suckling infants to escape, allowing more milk to be ingested. The hypothesis suggests that the air bubble in the stomach stimulates the sensory limb of the reflex at receptors in the stomach, esophagus and along the diaphragm. This triggers the hiccup, which creates suction in the chest, pulling air from the stomach up and out through the mouth, effectively burping the animal. This theory is supported by the strong tendency for infants to get hiccups, the component of the reflex that suppresses peristalsis in the esophagus, and the existence of hiccups only in milk-drinking mammals.

Phylogenetic hypothesis

An international respiratory research group composed of members from Canada, France, and Japan proposed that the hiccup is an evolutionary remnant of earlier amphibian respiration.[13] Amphibians such as tadpoles gulp air and water across their gills via a rather simple motor reflex akin to mammalian hiccuping. The motor pathways that enable hiccuping form early during fetal development, before the motor pathways that enable normal lung ventilation form. Thus, the hiccup is evolutionarily antecedent to modern lung respiration.

Additionally, this group (C. Straus et al.) points out that hiccups and amphibian gulping are inhibited by elevated CO2 and may be stopped by GABAB receptor agonists, illustrating a possible shared physiology and evolutionary heritage. These proposals may explain why premature infants spend 2.5% of their time hiccuping, possibly gulping like amphibians, as their lungs are not yet fully formed.[14]

Fetal intrauterine hiccups are of two types. The physiological type occurs prior to twenty-eight weeks after conception and tend to last five to ten minutes. These hiccups are part of fetal development and are associated with the myelination of the phrenic nerve, which primarily controls the thoracic diaphragm.

The phylogeny hypothesis explains how the hiccup reflex might have evolved, and if there is not an explanation it may explain hiccups as an evolutionary remnant, held over from our amphibious ancestors.[15] This hypothesis has been questioned because of the existence of the afferent loop of the reflex, the fact that it does not explain the reason for glottic closure, and because the very short contraction of the hiccup is unlikely to have a significant strengthening effect on the slow-twitch muscles of respiration.


Hiccups are normally waited out, as any fit of them will usually pass quickly. Folkloric 'cures' for hiccups are common and varied, but no effective standard for stopping hiccups has been documented. Hiccups are treated medically only in severe and persistent (termed "intractable") cases.

Numerous medical remedies exist but no particular treatment is known to be especially effective, generally because of a paucity of high-quality evidence.[16][17] Many drugs have been used, such as baclofen, chlorpromazine, metoclopramide, gabapentin, and various proton-pump inhibitors. Hiccups that are secondary to some other cause like gastroesophageal reflux disease or esophageal webs are dealt with by treating the underlying disorder. The phrenic nerve can be blocked temporarily with injection of 0.5% procaine, or permanently with bilateral phrenicotomy or other forms of surgical destruction. Even this rather drastic treatment does not cure some cases, however.

Haloperidol, metoclopramide, and chlorpromazine are used in cases of intractable hiccups. Effective treatment with sedatives often requires a dose that renders the person either unconscious or highly lethargic. Hence, medicating with sedatives is only appropriate short-term, as the affected individual cannot continue with normal life activities while under their effect.

A vagus nerve stimulator has been used with an intractable case of hiccups. "It sends rhythmic bursts of electricity to the brain by way of the vagus nerve, which passes through the neck. The Food and Drug Administration approved the vagus nerve stimulator in 1997 as a way to control seizures in some patients with epilepsy."[18]

Persistent digital rectal massage has also been proven effective in terminating intractable hiccups.[19]

Folk remedies

There are many superstitious and folk remedies for hiccups, including headstanding, drinking a glass of water upside-down, being frightened by someone, breathing into a bag, eating a large spoonful of peanut butter and placing sugar on or under the tongue.[20][21]

A simple treatment involves increasing the partial pressure of CO2 and inhibiting diaphragm activity by holding one’s breath or rebreathing into a paper bag.[22] Other potential remedies suggested by NHS Choices include pulling your knees up to your chest and leaning forward, sipping ice-cold water and swallowing some granulated sugar.[23]

Society and culture

The word hiccup itself was created through imitation. The alternative spelling of hiccough results from the incorrect assumption that it originates from the word cough.[24]

American Charles Osborne had hiccups for 68 years, from 1922 to February 1990,[25] and was entered in the Guinness World Records as the man with the longest attack of hiccups, an estimated 430 million hiccups.[26] In 2007, Florida teenager Jennifer Mee gained media fame for hiccuping around 50 times per minute for more than five weeks.[27][28] Christopher Sands, a Briton, hiccupped an estimated 10 million times in a 27-month period from February 2007 to May 2009. His condition, which meant that he could hardly eat or sleep, was eventually discovered to be caused by a tumor on his brain stem pushing on nerves causing him to hiccup every two seconds, 12 hours a day. His hiccups stopped in 2009 following surgery.[29]

In Slavic, Baltic, German, Hungarian, Turkish, Romanian and Indian folklore it is said that hiccups occur when the person experiencing them is being talked about by someone not present.[30][31]

See also


  1. Wilkes, Garry (2 August 2007). "Hiccups". eMedicine. Medscape. Retrieved 22 April 2009.
  2. "Hiccups". Home Remedies. Retrieved 5 November 2011.
  3. "Hiccups". WebMD. Retrieved 6 February 2014.
  4. "Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease". A.D.A.M Medical Encyclopedia. PubMed Health. Archived from the original on 4 January 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2016.CS1 maint: BOT: original-url status unknown (link)
  5. Willis, FM (2003). "Chronic hiccups". Modern Drugs Discovery. 6 (6). Retrieved 12 October 2016.
  6. Howes, D. (2012). "Hiccups: A new explanation for the mysterious reflex". BioEssays. 34 (6): 451–453. doi:10.1002/bies.201100194. PMC 3504071. PMID 22377831.
  7. "Hiccups Happen!" (PDF). University of Maryland Hospital for Children. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 January 2012. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
  8. Lauterbach, E. C (1999). "Hiccup and apparent myoclonus after hydrocodone: review of the opiate-related hiccup and myoclonus literature". Clinical Neuropharmacology. 22 (2): 87–92. doi:10.1097/00002826-199903000-00004. PMID 10202603.
  9. Milano, Meadow. "Causes of Hiccups". Archived from the original on 25 November 2010. Retrieved 2 April 2012.
  10. "Hiccups: Causes". MayoClinic.com. 3 June 2011. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  11. Witoonpanich R, Pirommai B, Tunlayadechanont S (2004). "Hiccups and multiple sclerosis". Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand = Chotmaihet Thangphaet. 87 (10): 1168–71. PMID 15560692.
  12. Guadarrama-Conzuelo, F; Saad Manzanera, A D (1 September 2019). "Singultus as an Unusual Debut of Plasmodium vivax Malaria". Cureus. 11 (9): e5548. doi:10.7759/cureus.5548. PMC 6820320. PMID 31695971.
  13. Straus C, Vasilakos K, Wilson RJ, Oshima T, Zelter M, Derenne JP, Similowski T, Whitelaw WA (February 2003). "A phylogenetic hypothesis for the origin of hiccough". BioEssays. 25 (2): 182–188. doi:10.1002/bies.10224. PMID 12539245.
  14. P. Kahrilas and G. Shi (1997). "Why do we hiccup?". Gut. 41 (5): 712–713. doi:10.1136/gut.41.5.712. PMC 1891574. PMID 9414986.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  15. "Why we hiccup". BBC News. 6 February 2003.
  16. Porter, Robert S., ed. (2011). "Hiccups". The Merck Manual Online. Merck Sharp & Dohme.
  17. Moretto, Emilia N; Wee, Bee; Wiffen, Philip J; Murchison, Andrew G (31 January 2013). "Interventions for treating persistent and intractable hiccups in adults". Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (1): CD008768. doi:10.1002/14651858.cd008768.pub2. PMC 6452787. PMID 23440833.
  18. Schaffer, Amanda (10 January 2006). "A Horrific Case of Hiccups, a Novel Treatment". New York Times. Retrieved 24 April 2008.
  19. Odeh M, Bassan H, Oliven A (February 1990). "Termination of intractable hiccups with digital rectal massage". Journal of Internal Medicine. 227 (2): 145–6. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2796.1990.tb00134.x. PMID 2299306.
  20. Engleman EG, Lankton J, Lankton B (December 1971). "Granulated sugar as treatment for hiccups in conscious patients". The New England Journal of Medicine. 285 (26): 1489. doi:10.1056/nejm197112232852622. PMID 5122907.
  21. Boswell, Wendy (25 March 2007). "MacGyver Tip: Cure hiccups with sugar". The People's Pharmacy (Lifehacker). Retrieved 30 November 2009.
  22. "The Two Mechanisms That Make Hiccup Cures Actually Work". 30 January 2014. Retrieved 16 September 2016.
  23. "Hiccups". NHS Choices. 15 July 2017. Retrieved 25 December 2017.
  24. "Definition of hiccup in English". Oxford Dictionaries. Retrieved 8 February 2018.
  25. In pictures | Guinness medical record breakers | Longest attack of hiccups. BBC News. Retrieved on 2 June 2013.
  26. "Survivor of 68-Year Hiccup Spell Dies". Omaha World-Herald (Sunrise ed.). 5 May 1991. p. 2.B.
  27. "Florida girl hiccuping again after returning to school". MSNBC. 16 March 2007. Archived from the original on 18 March 2007.
  28. "'Hiccup Girl' Jennifer Mee May Use Tourette's Defense, Says Lawyer". CBS News. 27 October 2010. Archived from the original on 1 January 2011.
  29. Symons, Jane (8 May 2008). "So does holding your breath REALLY banish hiccups?". The Sun. London.
  30. "A régi babonák napjainkban is élnek" (in Hungarian). ujszo.com. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  31. Schersch, Ursula (17 November 2010). "Schluckauf: Wer denkt an mich?". derStandard.at (in German). Retrieved 3 April 2018.

Further reading

  • Provine, Robert R. Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and Beyond (Harvard University Press; 2012) 246 pages; examines the evolutionary context for humans
  • Shubin, Neil (February 2008). "Fish Out of Water". Natural History. 117 (1): 26–31. INIST:19986878. – hiccup related to reflex in fish and amphibians.
External resources
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