Ordinary hiccups, resulting from things like overeating and stress, are usually benign.
But hiccups can indicate a serious problem, and a prolonged, uncontrollable bout may lead to debilitating consequences like fatigue, weight loss, depression, problems with heart rhythm, esophageal reflux, and possibly exhaustion and death in a weakened patient.
In a famous case, Pope Pius XII had long periods of hiccups, associated with gastritis, though he eventually died of a stroke.
A hiccup is a spasm of the diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that controls breathing, accompanied by a sudden intake of breath and the closing of the epiglottis, the bit of tissue at the back of the throat that can close the airway.
The underlying cause of troublesome hiccups should be investigated. For example, the complicated nervous pathways involved in hiccups can be affected by diseases like multiple sclerosis; in such cases, and for other serious hiccups, muscle relaxants are often prescribed.
Other causes include gastrointestinal problems such as obstruction or inflammation, complications of AIDS or side effects of its treatment, nervous system tumors, encephalitis and meningitis, alcoholism, and problems with many medications.