Alcohol has all kinds of weird side effects—including an irritated nerve that could lead to those pesky hics
Having one too many can have a slew of embarrassing consequences: stumbling out of a bar; raiding the fridge; and sometimes, a mean case of the hiccups. (Check out all the Body Altering Affects of Alcohol.)
But why can happy hour leave you gasping uncontrollably? To understand that you have to understand what a hiccup is: "an involuntary contraction of the diaphragm which typically results in expulsion of air," says Richard Benya, M.D., a gastroenterologist and the director of the Loyola University Health System.
Your diaphragm is a thin sheet of muscle separating your chest cavity and your stomach, explains Gina Sam, M.D., director of the Gastrointestinal Motility Center at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. When you take a deep breath, it contracts. When you've got the hiccups, though, it spasms, she says. "The intake of your breath is suddenly stopped by the closing of the vocal cords."
Oftentimes, this is because the vagus nerve—which runs from your brain to your abdomen by way of organs like your esophagus—becomes irritated, says Sam. Culprits of this irritation: swallowing too much air (ahem, carbonated drinks); eating a huge meal (your stomach can extend, rubbing up against your diaphragm, says Benya); piping hot beverages; periods of emotional stress; and yep: booze. (Ahem: 8 Signs You're Drinking Too Much.)
"It could be that alcohol promotes acid reflux and that could be irritating the esophagus," says Sam. When you drink, alcohol also gets into your brain and can trigger the vagus nerve, irritating it, says Benya.
But while annoying, a pesky case of the hiccups is usually normal.
"It's when they become persistent—lasting for a day, 48 hours, or a week—that we become concerned," says Sam, who adds that this could be a sign of issues in the brain, cancer, infection, or stroke. "Patients who have had kidney problems or any irritation in the head, neck, or chest areas can also have the hiccups," she says.
And as for stopping 'em? "Hiccups are pretty involuntary," says Benya. So you might not have great luck kicking them to the curb. (Note: If you're suffering from persistent yelps, medicines called calcium channel blockers can help.)
Of course, we won't judge: Hold your breath, swallow a teaspoon of sugar, or plug your nose (or is it your ears...?). Just be warned—you might wind up simply looking as silly as you sound! (And on that note, Why Does One Person Always Get Too Drunk at the Holiday Party?)