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When Should You Worry About Hiccups?

Hiccups usually go away by themselves, but when they persist you may worry about hiccups. Will the doctor recommend digital rectal massage?
When Should You Worry About Hiccups?
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Have you ever had hiccups? Almost everyone has. They can be annoying, embarrassing and uncomfortable, but hiccups generally go away on their own. When hiccups last for more than two days, though, they deserve medical attention. When should you worry about hiccups?

Reasons to Worry About Hiccups:

There are some serious conditions that might trigger long-lasting hiccups. These include something touching the ear drum, acid reflux, nerve damage, kidney disease, infection within the brain or spinal column, a tumor, a stroke or brain injury. Medications such as corticosteroids, anesthetics or sedatives can also provoke a bout of persistent hiccups.

When Doctors Worry About Hiccups, They Don’t Always Use Drugs:

Q. Do you have any suggestions for how to get rid of hiccups? They have persisted for two days.

A. A reader offered this somewhat challenging cure for persistent hiccups:

“My husband had hiccups for four days and finally went to the doctor when his ribs starting hurting. The doctor told him to use an enema suppository. The hiccups were gone within 24 hours. I hope this helps someone else.”

There is actually some science to support this remedy. Emergency physicians described a case of hiccups that lasted more than three days (Journal of Emergency Medicine, Feb. 2017).  The patient had not been able to eat, drink or sleep. That’s enough to make anyone worry about hiccups. The doctors presented several “pharmacological interventions.” They also offered the patient digital rectal massage (DRM).

Here is their description of the outcome:

“Before undergoing DRM, we observed our patient hiccuping 40 times in 1 minute. Our patient was placed in a lateral recumbent position with his hips flexed. A gloved lubricated index finger was passed into his rectum. Rectal massage was carried out in a slow, clockwise fashion with moderate steady pressure being applied. On initiation of DRM, hiccuping ceased immediately. The DRM was continued for 30 seconds.”

One hour later, the patient went home. He reported no further hiccup attacks.

Hiccups that don’t go away with home remedies require medical attention. They could be a sign of something serious.

When doctors worry about hiccups, they may use a heavy-duty approach. Surgeons can stimulate the vagus nerve by implanting an electrical device (International Journal of Surgery Case Reports, Jan. 2021). Presumably, many home remedies also work by stimulating the vagus nerve momentarily.

Home Remedies for Hiccups:

If you have no special reason to worry about hiccups, there are plenty of home remedies that can stop them quickly. Many people have a particular favorite and insist that it is 100 percent reliable. We have been collecting hiccup home remedies for more than 40 years and we can assure you that none work for absolutely everyone. Here are some of our favorites, though.

One person has used this cure all his life:

“Have someone stand behind you and pull straight up on your ears while you take sips of water. I do this by myself by taking a mouthful of water and swallowing it in small amounts while pulling up on my ears. I kid you not, it works every time!”

The remedy is similar to one we have tested in which a person with hiccups drinks water while a helper standing behind him holds down the flaps of the hiccupper’s ears. (That little flap is called the tragus.)

Some remedies go back a long way.

Here is one:

“I had my first child in November, 1947. When he was three days old, I brought him home and he immediately started hiccupping. I couldn’t figure out how to stop them.

“My dad came into the kitchen and told me to put a tiny bit of sugar on the end of a spoon and give it to the baby. It worked!

“I wonder where he heard that? From his mom, no doubt.”

The sugar cure for hiccups (swallowing a spoonful of dry sugar all at once) was featured in the pages of The New England Journal of Medicine in 1971.

Another person goes to the opposite extreme.

Instead of sugar, she uses vinegar:

“I don’t remember how I got started with this, but I think I just tried it on my own and it worked. Whenever I get the hiccups, I just swallow a teaspoon full of vinegar. My husband thinks it’s disgusting, but it always seems to work. I usually use apple cider vinegar.”

When Bartenders Worry About Hiccups:

People who drink alcohol are especially susceptible to hiccups. One favorite bartender recipe is to have the hiccupping person suck on a lemon wedge that has been sprinkled with a few drops of Angostura bitters.

One last remedy is chocolate:

“My father was recovering in the hospital for several weeks last summer, and many, many times he had lengthy bouts of severe hiccups. As he was recovering from abdominal surgery, these were extremely painful.

“His doctors tried anti-spasmodic drugs to end them, but that didn’t work. I read about chocolate as a remedy in your book, bought him a bag of chocolate chips, and voila. He is in his seventies and a skeptic. When he mentions this cure to his doctors, they think he is making it up. He was thrilled.”

Learn More:

For people who would like to learn about other hiccup solutions, we offer our eGuide to Favorite Home Remedies. In addition to hiccup treatments, we offer simple solutions to common ailments such as arthritis, coughs, cramps, indigestion, insomnia and warts.

Anyone who would like to learn more about simple solutions for common ailments may also find our book, Quick & Handy Home Remedies, of interest. It contains numerous remedies for a wide range of common problems.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
  • Lee C & Tong LPJ, "Termination of persistent hiccups by digital rectal massage." Journal of Emergency Medicine, Feb. 2017. DOI: 10.1016/j.jemermed.2016.07.116
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