George V. Reilly

Curing Hiccups

At our Sixth Day of Christmas party yesterday, Delf started talking about burns from hot peppers, which reminded me of a crazy thread that I read a while back, Listening to habeneros, and of a sure-fire cure for hiccups from Diane Duane.

Me, when I get hiccups, I just take a very deep breath and hold it for as long as I can. If it doesn’t work the first time, it does on the second attempt.

Cure #1, letting a large spoonful of sugar dissolve in the mouth, is the only cure that’s ever worked for Emma.

Here’s Diane Duane on curing hiccups:

Hiccups are the result of a blood serum elec­trolyte balance. The causes are various: talking too much while eating (my favorite), eating or drinking too fast, etc etc, whatever. Different causes tend to induce different kinds of imbalance. The imbalances are these:

  1. Res­pi­ra­to­ry acidosis – too much CO2 in the blood.
  2. Res­pi­ra­to­ry alkalosis – too little CO2 in the blood.

When you get one or the other of these, the body’s tendency is to try to rectify the situation by pushing the lungs’ contents in and out a lot faster, so that if there isn’t enough CO2, some more can get into the blood­stream, and if there’s too much, some can get out. Now, the body doesn’t want to bother your conscious mind about this, so it does it in a simple, inelegant, and not wildly effective way: it makes your diaphragm spasm, com­press­ing the lungs and shoving most of their tidal volume out with each spasm. This is the hiccup.

Now, you’d think that con­cen­trat­ing on breathing deeply and regularly, and ven­ti­lat­ing yourself in a thoughtful manner, would put this problem right. Well, probably it will: but it takes forever, and you’re sitting there hiccuping and feeling like a fool (and the continuing hiccups can themselves make the elec­trolyte situation worse). So it becomes time to take drastic measures.

It turns out that the smartest and fastest way to derail the hiccups themselves is to quickly increase the imbalance sig­nif­i­cant­ly. The in­ter­ven­tion derived from this concept deals with (first) the most common one, the acidosis, and then, if that doesn’t work, the less common one, the alkalosis. The fortunate thing is that all the raw materials are usually present in the average bar or restaurant, so you can cure yourself or a friend fast in one of the places where you’re most likely to look like an idiot as you just sit there hiccuping and hiccuping.

(Part 1:) Juli got this one right. Take a large spoonful of sugar, dry, in the mouth, and let it dissolve. Some of the sugar gets absorbed directly through the buccal membrane of the mouth. The acidosis is kicked way further along, and your body, distracted by the sudden extreme change in the blood chemistry, "calls off" the hiccups as in­ef­fec­tive. It calls them off right away, too: within seconds. The "spoonful of sugar" approach, in my experience, works for about 60% of hiccuppers.

If this doesn’t work, the hiccuper has a worse case of acidosis than mere sugar can deal with. So we take the in­ter­ven­tion up a notch.

(Part 2:) Take one small spoonful of salt (the equivalent of a cooking teaspoon is plenty). Again, hold in the mouth and let it dissolve. It’s gross, but in the next 20% of hiccupers, the hiccups will stop. Bang, right away.

If neither of these steps work, then your hiccuper is not in acidosis, but in alkalosis. So you switch tactics.

(Part 3:) Give the hiccuper a lemon slice and tell them to chew on it. Their hiccups will then vanish.

It is important to do these things in order and not try to cut back on the amounts of sugar and salt, or the in­ter­ven­tion may fail and you’ll wind up having to do it all over again, which is annoying, especially if you’re on a low-sodium diet or just don’t feel like retaining liters and liters of water the next day. But if you follow these in­struc­tions faithfully, the hiccups should vanish, pretty much without fail. You can get a real reputation as a miracle worker with this.

A side issue, henceforth possibly to be called Duane’s Law of Em­bar­rass­ment Anxiety: When you are running this routine on someone whose hiccups you absolutely have to stop because you’ll fall very low in their estimation if you don’t, they will always be alkalotic, and you will always have to run through all the stages, feeling dumber and more desperate every moment as you go along. (This law first became plain to me when I was de-hiccuping my "Science Challenge" producer at the BBC: if I hadn’t proven I was good at the science part by curing him, well, you can imagine.)

And an af­ter­thought: All other even slightly useful hiccup cures service this mechanism in one way or another, by quickly and em­phat­i­cal­ly changing the blood elec­trolyte balance. Scaring the person (causes acidosis: see The Andromeda Strain), drinking water upside down (forces the person to hold his/her breath, slowly increases the CO2 in the blood), breathing in a paper bag (re­breath­ing, ditto), whatever: they are all thin pale versions of the One True Cure, trying with greater or lesser ef­fec­tive­ness to shove the blood elec­trolytes around.

Now go all ye and spread the word, that there may be fewer hiccups in the world.

Googling for $g(hiccups sugar) turns up quite a few more hits.

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