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Q - Is there any over-the-counter medicine that will relieve hiccups? My husband gets them almost every hour. The spells last about four minutes, but it would be better if we could prevent them or cut the spells short.

A -- Most people don't take hiccups very seriously. Home remedies abound, including swallowing a teaspoonful of dry sugar, biting into a lemon wedge doused with Angostura bitters, tickling the palate with a cotton swab, breathing into a paper bag and drinking out of the wrong side of a glass.

But recurrent or long-lasting hiccups could be a symptom of something serious. They may be a complication of severe heartburn or hiatal hernia.

Other possibilities include alcoholism, lung conditions, digestive disorders, nerve problems and side effects of certain medications. Obviously, your husband requires a careful medical workup to uncover the cause of his persistent hiccups.

If there is no serious problem making him hiccup, there are lots of medical treatments worth discussing with a physician. Stimulating the phrenic nerve may help. This is the idea behind the spoonful of sugar and cotton swab approaches. Eating crushed ice, pulling on the tongue or drinking a glass of water rapidly are further variations on the same principle.

There are a few reports in the medical literature of success in stopping hiccups in hospitalized patients incapable of swallowing. The patient's rectum was massaged with a (gloved) finger.

This approach sounds extreme, but it is less likely to have side effects than some of the prescription medications that have been used. The antidepressant amitriptyline, the blood pressure medicine nifedipine, the anti-Parkinson's drug amantadine, the muscle relaxant baclofen, and the heartburn medication metoclopramide have all been used with some success, but none is sure-fire.

Vitamin B-6 and asthma

Q -- Several years ago I read that vitamin B-6 (pyridoxine) could help people with asthma. I suggested this to my mother, and she was able to discontinue her spray after several months on the vitamin. Why don't doctors believe in vitamins?

A -- Doctors are often skeptical of remedies that have not been proved through research. This laudable attitude helps to protect patients from therapies that don't work.

Unfortunately, research on vitamins is often inadequate. Back in 1985, investigators reported that vitamin B-6 levels were low in the blood of a small group of asthmatics they studied. B-6 supplementation seemed to improve asthma symptoms.

This tantalizing finding has not been followed up with a major research effort. We are glad your mother is doing well, but we can't say whether vitamin ll for checkup
B-6 "works" for asthma until more research has been done. It is unwise to take more than 50 millgrams of this vitamin daily except under a doctor's supervision, as high doses may cause nerve damage.

Those little brown spots

Q -- I'm at the age now where I look down and see my mother's hands hanging out of my sleeves. Is there anything I can do to get rid of those little brown spots?

A -- An agent called hydroquinone can bleach those spots, although it will take patience and persistence. It is found in over-the-counter creams such as Porcelana, Esoterica or Eldoquin, and at higher doses in prescription products such as Melanex or Solaquin-Forte. It is essential to use sunscreen, or any time outside will undo the bleaching.

Joe and Teresa Graedon answer questions from readers in their column. Write to them in care of The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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