Why do People Get Hiccups?

Table of Contents

An *Hic!* Introduction to hiccups

What are hiccups?
What are hiccups? Credit: Wikimedia/117Avenue

Do you remember what you did the last time you got hiccups? Did you hold your breath for a whole minute? Or, maybe, someone tried to scare the hiccups away? No? What about trying to drink from the wrong side of the glass? Perhaps you simply waited it out.


Even if you haven’t found the right way to stop them (yet!), you’ve definitely experienced them. Hiccups can be just as funny as they can be inconvenient. They can even make into the Guinness World Records —turns out, the longest bout of hiccups on record went on for about 68 years ! While they tend to sort themselves out quickly, a longer, more persistent bout of hiccups can require some medical attention.


This seeming glitch in your daily bodily functions has inspired quite a bit of speculation. According to folklore, having a case of the hiccups means that someone is thinking about you. And so, if you want to do away with your hiccups, you might have to go through a list of all your friends until you reach the person who may have caused it!


Older legends even suspect that elves had something to do with it! While we can’t really rule out the elves for sure, what does science tell us about hiccups?

What’s a diaphragm?

How does the diaphragm work?
How does the diaphragm work? Credit: Wikimedia/Cruithne9

To understand what happens during a hiccup, it helps to know a bit more about the diaphragm.


If you haven’t heard of the diaphragm before, it’s a large muscle that’s shaped like a dome. It’s found sandwiched between your lungs and stomach. It plays a big role in your breathing, and on most occasions it works exactly as it should!


When you push air out of your lungs, the diaphragm moves upwards. When you draw in a deep breath, the diaphragm relaxes and helps air flow right back into your lungs. Something goes wrong in this motion when you experience hiccups.

How does the hiccup work?

The role of the diaphragm during hiccups
The role of the diaphragm during hiccups, Credit: Wikimedia/Brbbl at nl.wikipedia

Hiccups are an involuntary action, like a blink when something touches your eye, or a flinch when you feel something is a bit too hot. These actions are called reflexes. You don’t really think about it, but your body kicks into motion.


Your hiccups begin when the air you take in happens at a much faster rate than normal, or when the diaphragm becomes irritated. The nerves that experience this irritation send out a message to the part of the brain that controls breathing and other basic functions. This region is called the medulla oblongata, which is part of the brain stem.

The brain sends signals to the diaphragm during hiccups
The brain sends signals to the diaphragm during hiccups, Credit: Wikimedia/Jeff Bugbee

Then, the medulla oblongata sends out a signal to the diaphragm instructing it to move down more rapidly. When this muscle contracts suddenly, there is an intake of air that can get caught in the back of your throat. This air that’s rushed in can hit your voice box and your vocal cords, which snap shut very quickly. This change in pressure and the movement of the vocal cords leads to the characteristic hiccup sounds that catch you by surprise!

What can cause a hiccup?

Scientists aren’t too sure what exactly tells the brain to trigger a hiccup reflex, but we know there are many things that can cause it. A lot of these triggers are unique to the person.

Hiccups can happen because of a stomach too full, Credit: wordpress.org/openverse

Some people have bouts of hiccups when they are excited, or stressed, or experience some kind of sudden change in temperature. It can also just be a reflex that comes up because of a stomach too full, or a result of behaviors like smoking. For others, it might start because of irritations like spicy food, or maybe an ulcer.


However, it can also have more sinister triggers like a head injury, tumors, or infections. When people experience persistent hiccups, it is often a sign that there’s an underlying health condition. In the case of the man who had hiccups for 68 years, he was later diagnosed with a brain tumor. Once he had the treatment for his tumor, his hiccups disappeared too.

How can you cure hiccups?

If you have a mild (but frustrating) case of hiccups, it might help to use what we know to our advantage!


Since the hiccups are a reflex that starts out because of signals from the brain, what we can do is find ways to interrupt that signal. So, the idea of drinking from the wrong side of the glass might not be too wrong—it can stimulate different nerves in the throat and mouth, and so can switch up the signal sent out for hiccups!


Another way to reverse your hiccups might be to breathe into a paper bag. What this does is increase the carbon dioxide in your blood, and studies tell us that heightened CO2 levels can help regulate your hiccups.


When the hiccups persist for a long time, doctors can prescribe medicines, or, as a last resort, even surgery for the cases that have lasted for years.


If none of these methods work, it might help to check around your house for some elves to ensure you really are hiccup-free!


Diaphragm: A dome-shaped muscle between the lungs and stomach


Reflex: An automatic response to a stimulus


Medulla oblongata: A part of the brain above the spinal cord responsible for involuntary actions like breathing


Vocal cords: Membranes in the throat that vibrate to produce a voice

Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 6.5


Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 74

Stierwalt, E. E. S. (n.d.). What’s the Science Behind Why We Hiccup? Scientific American. Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/whats-the-science-behind-why-we-hiccup/


What Causes Hiccups? (For Kids)—Nemours KidsHealth. (n.d.). Retrieved December 29, 2022, from https://kidshealth.org/en/kids/hiccup.html


  • Swarna Ramakrishnan

    Swarna Ramakrishnan has been fascinated by the natural world ever since she was a young girl! She graduated from Azim Premji University, India with a Bachelor’s in Biology and a minor in applied mathematics. During her research, she trekked through the beautiful forests of the Western Ghats in India to answer questions about stomata and climate change. Currently, she is pursuing her Master’s in Biophysics from Ulm University, Germany. Swarna writes for Smore magazine to spread stories of nature in hopes of inspiring the next generation of scientists!

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