We like to think we control our bodies. As I type this, my fingers oblg — er, obEY me pretty well, and if I choose to stand up and walk away, my legs won’t argue.
Sometimes, however, our bodies seem to have minds of their own: like when we’re hiccupping, itching and sneezing.
A hiccup results from an unexpected spasm of the diaphragm, the sheet of muscle that separates the chest from the abdominal cavity. This causes a sudden movement of air in the windpipe, which snaps shut in self-defense. “Hic!”
Hiccups are completely involuntary, and occur at regular intervals, from the usual four to 12 per minute all the way to 60 or even 100 per minute. They serve no known purpose beyond embarrassing us. Rapid gulping of food or drinking too much beer or other carbonated beverage may cause hiccups by overloading the stomach, thereby irritating the diaphragm, and alcohol may also release the body’s normal inhibition against hiccuping, but hiccups act neither to relieve the irritation or sober us up.
Hiccups that last more than a few minutes can be a symptom of liver infection, various tumors, pneumonia, stroke, kidney failure and even a heart attack. Stress and anxiety can also bring on hiccups, as can general anesthesia.
There are probably as many cures for hiccups as there are families, handed down from generation to generation. One favorite — a sudden fright — dates back to Plato, at least. Hippocrates suggested using a feather to stimulate sneezing. Breathing into a paper bag won’t cure hiccups, but it can lessen their force, because hiccups tend to weaken as the level of carbon dioxide in the blood increases.
There’s some scientific evidence in support of swallowing a little granulated sugar; it may activate an enzyme that halts diaphragm spasms. Finally, for really intractable hiccups, there are drugs and even surgical procedures. (But what if you’re one of those people who get hiccups during general anesthesia? You could get hiccups during the surgery to cure you of your hiccups!)
Almost as little understood as hiccupping is itching (“pruritis” in doctor-talk). Many plants, drugs and toxins can make our skin itch, as can dryness and even stress. Whatever brings on the itch, our response is the same: scratching, a reflex action unique to itching and apparently designed to remove noxious substances from the skin. Nobody is sure why it also relieves the itch: one theory is that it keeps our skin so busy feeling fingernails that it doesn’t have time to transmit the itch signal; another is that it releases an endorphin, a natural opiate-like substance.
One other interesting note: it’s impossible to talk about itching without itching. So give yourself a good scratch, and we’ll move on to sneezing.
Unlike hiccupping and itching, the purpose of sneezing is clear: to get stuff out of your nose. It’s your body’s biggest gun in the battle against foreign invaders in your nasal passages — everything from dust, molds and pollen to cold germs. If the invader is big and irritating enough, it triggers the sneeze reflex directly just by annoying the mucous membranes; but some people can sneeze themselves silly in the presence of something as apparently harmless as cat dandruff.
In that instance, and in other allergy and disease-triggered sneezes, the immune system gets things going by producing antibodies that bind to special “mast cells” in the mucous membranes. When these antibodies come into contact with the allergen or germ they’re specific to, the mast cells explode, releasing histamines and other substances which hit the mucous membrane walls like shrapnel. The mucous membranes don’t like that, and send a message to the nose, which passes it to the brain stem (the most primitive part of our brain), which summons up a 300-kilometre-an-hour blast to blow the offending material out of your head.
About the worst thing you can do when you feel that blast coming on is try to suppress it. The air has to go somewhere, and if you don’t let it out you force it up into the Eustachian tubes, which lead to the ears. That can send germs and viral particles into the inner ear or even damage your eardrums. So let it out!
Well, covering your nose and mouth is acceptable.