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When I’m in a public place, I find that I have to restrain myself when I encounter a person I’m unacquainted with who is suffering from a stubborn bout of hiccups.

I’d love to say, “Poor thing, it appears you’re suffering from a case of synchronous diaphragmatic flutter!” I’ve tried it on family members. It scares them right away (the hiccups, not my kin). But I know better than to scare unsuspecting random mothers out of their wits when their young children sporadically pop in the air making ridiculous hic! noises every few seconds. That would be very naughty of me, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s tempting.

Synchronous diaphragmatic flutter is actually nothing other than hiccups or hiccough in medical lingo. It is also known as singultus, that being the Latin terminology. I like to call it the curse of the wobbly diaphragm from time to time. However, I think I enjoy German word, Schluckauf, even more.

It’s indisputable that hiccups are nuisances. We all know the basic cures. Hold your breath. Gulp cold water at top speed or in various ridiculous positions. Startle the hiccup victim senseless. I always found sugar to be the most effective cure; however, my high school biology teacher swore that drinking water while holding your ears and nose closed was the one-and-only true method. It worked like a wonder for a little while. I still prefer sugar.

I’ve read somewhere that Hippocrates recommended sneezing as a cure for hiccups. I wonder how many people can do that on command.

But what was done for hiccups in the 1800s? I did my best finding off-the-wall treatments. Most books I found only mentioned hiccups as symptoms for ailments, but few said what to do about the hiccups themselves. I did come across the old water-guzzling, sugar-dissolving, breath-holding, scare-the-patient standbys.

In Our Home Physician (1873), George Miller Beard also suggests swallowing vinegar or lemon juice, and goes on to say, “…when it occurs after a full meal, everybody* knows that a little brandy generally puts it to a stop.” Count me out of that everybody. For hiccups accompanied by fever or inflammatory diseases, Beard recommends “opium, henbane, and similar narcotic medicines.”** Opium, needless to say, had many purposes in those days, and this suggestion did not surprise me in the least.

And then there’s good ol’ Dr. Gunn. I came across a digital edition of Gunn’s New Domestic Physician from 1861, which I thought I would compare with my tangible copy of Dr. Gunn’s Household Physician from 1901 (the two-hundred and tenth edition, revised and enlarged — oh, how I love this book, for it is a source of endless entertainment). The two books are very similar, but after so many editions, a few changes are inevitable — even in regard to hiccups.

The 1861 edition includes my favorite sugary method, the strict “‘nine swallows’ of cold water, taken without breathing”, fennel seed tea, compound spirits of lavender, anise, castor oil and spirits of turpentine, mustard drafts applied to the stomach and abdomen, sweet oil and fresh milk (if the hiccups come from poison, which happens to the best of us), warm baths, peppermint with sulphuric acid, tincture of musk and tincture of hyoscyamus (if nervousness if the culprit), and, the biggest eye-opener (or eye-shutter), “Inhaling chloroform will also be good.” That single sentence stands out to me. He does not elaborate any further. Not in the 1861 edition, that is.

...I'm sorry, but I couldn't resist this image here.

…I’m sorry, but I couldn’t resist this image here.

Forty years later in the two-hundred and tenth edition, it is no longer necessary to take nine swallows of water, or any specific number at that. All of his other cures still apply. However, he has more to say about the chloroform: “It may be necessary to completely anaesthetize the patient with Chloroform or Ether.”*** In other words, just knock ’em out full-force. The fact that this is a “household guide” both amuses and frightens me.

I’ll stick with the sugar.


*My emphasis.

**Please, please, PLEASE do not exercise these methods — they are listed for historical amusement only.

***The same applies with chloroform and ether. Please refrain from this “cure.”