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8 Things Your Hiccups May Say About Your Health

Hiccups are usually just annoying. However, they can sometimes accompany or be a sign of acute or chronic health conditions.

Man with his hand at his mouth.iStock/Yuri_Arcurs

What causes hiccups?

Hiccups, which occur when the diaphragm and respiratory organs encounter an abrupt, involuntary spasm, happen to almost everyone on occasion. “Anything that causes your stomach to become distended can cause hiccups,” says gastroenterologist Timothy Pfanner, MD, now-retired assistant professor of internal medicine at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, in College Station, Texas. Usually, a bout of hiccups lasts for a brief period and then goes away on its own. However, Dr. Pfanner says that when hiccups are longer lasting or out of the ordinary from what you typically experience, more serious health issues might be at hand.

Man grabbing at his neck.istock/nebari

You have acid reflux disease

Telltale signs of acid reflux disease include heartburn, the regurgitation of a bitter-tasting acid, and nausea. Interestingly, hiccups that don’t let up are also a symptom of GERD, short for gastroesophageal reflux disease. If they persist, check with your doctor to see if you have acid reflux disease, which can be disruptive to your lifestyle and of course, your stomach and esophageal health.

Man at a desk with his head buried in his hands.iStock/laflor

You’re really stressed out

Hiccups may be a sign that you need to take some time out for yourself. The Mayo Clinic lists emotional stress as one of the many causes of hiccups, so if you’ve been noticing hiccups accompanying your elevated stress levels, consider taking steps to restore your inner peace such as meditation, exercise, or taking a vacation. Check out these other things you never knew about hiccups.

Female doctor discussing a scan result with her hospitalized patient.iStock/TommL

Hiccups can persist in people with more serious conditions

In rare cases, prolonged hiccups (days or even weeks) can happen to people who have cancer, including esophageal, colon, lung, pancreatic, liver, and renal cancers, as well as leukemias and lymphomas, according to a 2018 article published in Oncology Times. Some patients experience persistent hiccuping (lasting for more than 48 hours), while others experience what’s known as intractable hiccuping (greater than two months). 

Ill woman blowing her nose.iStock/andresr

Hiccups could be a pneumonia clue

According to the National Organization for Rare Disorders, chronic hiccups could be an indication of pleurisy—inflammation of the tissue surrounding the lungs—or pneumonia, among other conditions. (If it’s pneumonia, you’ll likely experience other symptoms such as chest pain, chills, fever, cough, and perhaps shortness of breath.) Your doctor will likely give you a chest X-ray to determine if you do indeed have pneumonia. Make sure you know these easy tricks to get rid of hiccups fast.

Ill woman leaning over the toilet bowl.iStock/GeorgeRudy

Hiccups can happen in people with a rare inflammatory disease

One of the symptoms of a rare condition known as neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD)—sometimes mistaken for multiple sclerosis—are persistent hiccups. Episodes of vomiting, visual loss, and nausea are also symptoms of this inflammatory disease of the central nervous system which primarily affects the optic nerves and spinal cord. No need to jump to serious health conclusions with every new symptom you observe, but it doesn’t hurt to speak to a medical professional about your hiccups, especially if you’re also experiencing other NMOSD symptoms.

Woman clutching her chest.iStock/champja

Hiccups could be part of early stroke symptoms

A national survey released in 2015 by The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found that most women did not know that hiccups could be an indication of a stroke. Of the 1,000 women questioned, only 11 percent were aware that in addition to typical stroke symptoms, hiccups coupled with atypical chest pain can be an early warning sign of a stroke in women. In fact, the National Stroke Association lists hiccups along with nausea, confusion, and general weakness as some of the stroke symptoms that are unique to females. The most common stroke symptoms in general are face drooping (particularly on one side), arm weakness, and slurred speech. (Check out these other reasons you have the hiccups.)

African American man in distress, hand over his chest.istock/pixelheadphoto

In rare cases, hiccups can be a heart attack symptom

Though this is a rare symptom of heart trouble, having the hiccups for a few days could indicate a heart attack. Josh Davenport, MD, an emergency medicine physician with San Leandro Medical Center in San Leandro, California, recalls the story of a 68-year-old man who was hiccuping for four straight days. Complications related to his diabetes, smoking habit, and the possibility of cancer were ruled out. Dr. Davenport then ordered an electrocardiogram for the man, drawing on a former case in which there was a correlation between hiccups and a heart attack. The results indicated that the man was indeed having a heart attack even though he wasn’t exhibiting typical heart attack signs such as sweating, weakness, or chest pain. However, just as is the case with hiccups being a possible symptom of certain cancers, Dr. Davenport warns that hiccups as a heart attack sign are possible but very rare.

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Hiccups could indicate a change in kidney function

For people with chronic kidney disease, having frequent hiccups could be an early warning sign that kidney function is deteriorating even further. Hiccups, along with symptoms like bone pain, abnormal breath odor, and muscle twitching are a few signs of such worsening—transcending earlier symptoms of chronic kidney disease such as headaches, fatigue, and appetite loss. Since the kidneys are responsible for the removal of waste and excess water in the body, their ability to work effectively is essential. Options such as dialysis may be necessary for people with kidney disease. (Don’t miss these things you’ve always wondered about your other bodily functions.)

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Medically reviewed by Michael Spertus, MD, on February 10, 2020