Hiccups occur when the diaphragm suddenly and involuntarily contracts (tightens), resulting in a hiccup sound being produced at the top of the windpipe.
The medical name for hiccups is "singultus".
The diaphragm is a thin membrane of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdomen (tummy). It is underneath the ribcage and helps to control breathing.
Hiccups are a reflex action, which means that you do not have any control over them. Hiccups are not usually serious and in most cases only last a few minutes.
In rare cases, hiccups can last for a long time. Hiccups that last more than 48 hours can be categorised into:
- persistent or protracted hiccups – a bout of hiccups that lasts for more than 48 hours
- intractable hiccups – a bout of hiccups that lasts longer than a month
Who gets hiccups?
Hiccups are common and most people will get them at some point during their life. They can affect people of any age, including babies. Men and women are equally affected by episodes of short-lived hiccups.
However, for reasons that are unclear, persistent and intractable hiccups are more common in men. Intractable hiccups are more common in adults. These types of hiccups can be tiring and upsetting, and can make eating and drinking difficult.
It is important to remember that persistent and intractable hiccups are rare and usually caused by another underlying health condition. In 80% of cases of persistent or intractable hiccups, a cause can be identified. The remaining 20% of cases usually have a psychological cause.
Read more about the causes of hiccups.
Most hiccups will pass quickly and usually only last a few minutes. Treatment is not usually required.
However, in cases of persistent or intractable hiccups that last longer than 48 hours, further investigations are needed to identify the cause and appropriate treatment.
Read more about how hiccups are diagnosed.
As well as treatment for underlying conditions, there are also self-help techniques that may help some people to stop common types of hiccups.
Read more information about treating hiccups.