How to stop hiccups: the evidence

How to stop hiccups: the evidence

Gillian Mayman takes a look at hiccup cures and asks if there is any evidence that they work at all?

If you spend enough time at my home, you will eventually hear someone shriek, "Sugar!" and run into the kitchen to eat a spoonful of granulated sugar.

This is not a sign of addiction. It just means that they have the hiccups and our favourite home remedy is to eat a spoonful of sugar to stop them.

We all have our own methods for trying to get rid of hiccups but I want to know which cures are actually effective. Is there any evidence for one cure being the best?

What are hiccups?


Hiccups are caused by a spasm in your diaphragm.  The diaphragm is the muscle that separates your thorax (including your lungs and heart) from your abdomen (including your stomach and intestines).

When you breathe in, your diaphragm contracts and pulls down and becomes flat in order to make room for more air in the lungs. When you breathe out, your diaphragm expands and forces air out of your lungs.

During a hiccup your diaphragm spasms, causing you to take a quick breath in. This breath in is then interrupted by the epiglottis closing and causing a "hic" sound. (The epiglottis is a flap that covers the space between the vocal cords).

So how do you stop them?

There are lots of ideas about how to stop hiccups.  I've listed a few of them below.

The list is ordered from most useful to most bizarre. Personally, I recommend sticking with the first two methods.

A Spoonful of Sugar

Scientists in the 1970s found that 19 out of 20 patients with hiccups found that eating a spoonful of granulated sugar stopped their hiccups.

How this works isn't fully known, although it may be that the sugar affects the vagus nerve which connects your brain and your tummy.  This may stop the diaphragm from spasming.

Drink with plugged ears

Plug your ears while drinking a glass of water. If you don't have a friend who is willing to put their fingers in your ears while you drink, you can do it yourself while drinking through a straw.

Again, no one really knows why this works, but it does!  There is some evidence that holding your breath causes a small build up of CO2 in the blood which affects the diaphragm.

Lemon with bitters or salt

Eat a lemon wedge soaked with bitters.  Bitters is a herbal drink with some alcohol in it so it obviously isn't suitable for children!

However, eating a slice of lemon with salt on it also seems to work. It may help to restore the body's salt balance and cure the hiccups but, again, nobody really knows!

There are plenty more ideas out there.  Why not share YOUR favourite method of stopping hiccups?

This article was written by Gillian Mayman for the Mind the Science Gap blog and has been adapted with the author's permission. To read the full article click here.

Gillian is student on the University of Michigan Master of Public Health programme and posts articles on the Mind the Science Gap blog every Monday.  You can view her blog entries here.

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