Ever Wonder Why You Burp?

By Howard J. Bennett

There are four people in the Bennett household: two parents and two kids. One of the kids is a 14-year-old boy, and the other is a 17-year-old girl. We were finishing a scrumptious salmon dinner the other night when one of us (I won’t say who) let out a humungous burp. Of the four people in the room, two laughed and two were grossed out.

What is it about burps that bring out such different reactions in people? And what is it that causes burps in the first place? The second question is easier to answer, so I will tackle that one first.

When you drink or eat, swallowed air makes it into your stomach along with whatever else was in your mouth. As your stomach begins to churn, some of the swallowed air rises to the top. A burp is what happens when swallowed air makes the return trip back up your esophagus (swallowing tube). However, most of the air you swallow does not come back when you burp. There are only two openings to your digestive tract, so what do you think happens to this un-burped air? I’ll give you a hint: Farts will be the subject of a future article!

Even though burping can raise a few eyebrows, it is an important function for proper digestion. If a person swallows lots of air, it can make the stomach bloated, which can cause gas pains. That’s why babies can get fussy and stop drinking unless Mom or Dad burps them during a feeding.

Now that we know burping is an important function, let’s look at the other question. Why does listening to burps bother some people and not others? In some cultures, including the Inuit of Canada, no one seems to mind if a dinner guest burps. Similarly, no one bats an eye if a baby or toddler burps during a meal. But somewhere along the line, Western culture decided that burping in older people was rude. As a result, the small child who gets away with burping becomes the school-aged child who is reminded by Mom or Dad to cover his mouth when he burps.

I think two facts explain why certain people — kids— love to burp. First, children are fascinated by bodily functions. (That’s why I’m allowed to write this column in the first place!) Second, adults frown on certain bodily functions, which make them infinitely more interesting to kids.

Bonus Fact: The record for the loudest burp is 107.1 decibels. This ear-splitting sound was emitted by Paul Hunn of London, England, on September 24, 2008. It was more intense than the sound of a motorcycle (102db) or a power mower (105 db).

© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 1/18/10.)

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