Let's Reminisce: A plague of hiccups
By Jerry Lincecum
Jan 21, 2020
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Recently while battling a nasty stomach virus, I found one of the most troublesome symptoms to be recurrent bouts of hiccups.  When I eventually had to see a doctor in order to get rid of the virus, she informed me that my hiccups were a result of the excessive bloating the virus caused in my digestive system.  She recommended chewing tablets of Simethicone to relieve the bloat.  After recovering I decided to do a bit of research on hiccups.  As usual, Wikipedia supplied me with a host of interesting information.


A hiccup is an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm that may repeat several times per minute. Once triggered, the reflex causes a strong contraction of the diaphragm followed about a quarter of a second later by closing of the vocal cords, which results in the "hic" sound.  My diaphragm remained sore for several days after the hiccups stopped.


Hiccups may occur individually, or they may come 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 home remedies are often used to attempt to shorten the duration.  Medical treatment is occasionally necessary in cases of chronic hiccups.


American Charles Osborne had hiccups for 68 years, from 1922 to February 1990, and is listed in the Guinness World Records as the man with the longest attack of hiccups, an estimated 430 million of them. In 2007, a Florida teenager gained media fame for hiccupping around 50 times per minute for more than five weeks.  Beginning that same year a man in Britain hiccupped an estimated 10 million times in a 27-month period. His condition, which meant that he could hardly eat or sleep, was eventually found to be caused by a tumor on his brain. His hiccups stopped in 2009 following surgery.  After reading of these extremes, I decided my own case of hiccups didnít seem so bad.


So where does this strange reflex behavior come from?  One suggestion is that hiccups may have evolved along with other reflexes developed in mammals that allow them to coordinate suckling milk and breathing. Hiccups are found only in mammals, and are most common in infants, becoming rare as mammals age.


This may suggest that hiccups evolved to allow air trapped in the stomach of suckling infants to escape, thus permitting more milk to be ingested. In other words, it effectively burps the baby. This theory is supported by the strong tendency for infants to get hiccups, and also by the fact that hiccups only occurs in milk-drinking mammals.


There are many folk remedies for hiccups, including standing on oneís head, drinking a glass of water upside-down, being frightened by someone, eating a large spoonful of peanut butter, and placing sugar on or under the tongue.  I myself have tried several of these with little success.  If readers of this column have other remedies to suggest, I would appreciate hearing them.


Perhaps the simplest treatment involves holding oneís breath or rebreathing into a paper bag.  Other potential remedies include pulling your knees up to your chest and leaning forward, sipping ice-cold water and swallowing some granulated sugar.


With regard to superstitions, in folklore from a variety of nations it is said that hiccups occur when the person experiencing them is being talked about by someone not present.  So itís a warning: someone may be plotting against you!


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: