Sneezes — 8 Things That May Surprise You

When a sneeze pops up, it can often be a bit of a surprise to you and may even startle those around you.

We have a few more surprises about sneezes and what’s going on when you sneeze.

  • A sneeze, medically called sternutation, is your body’s natural defense mechanism to protect you from foreign objects in your nose such as dust, pollen and other microscopic irritants. Colds, allergies and irritants like smoke or pollution can also trigger sneezes. Sneezing ejects those intruders and helps protect your lungs and other organs from contamination.
  • Go ahead and sneeze. If you try to hold it back, the foreign objects will just stay with you. You might be able to delay a sneeze by rubbing or holding your nose, breathing forcefully through your nose or maybe pressing the bridge of the nose or the upper lip below the nose. But once a sneeze starts, let it go. Some people have unusual medical conditions that can result in injury if they hold back a sneeze. For them a held-back sneeze can cause:
    • An injury to the diaphragm.
    • A blood vessel in the white of the eye to burst.
    • An eardrum to rupture due to air forced into the ears.
    • A weakened blood vessel in the brain to rupture causing momentary elevation in blood pressure.

Lesser side effects of sneezing can include:

    • Brief incontinence.
    • A neck injury from the sudden extension of the neck.
  • Some people sneeze in bright light. This is called photic sneeze reflex. We don’t know exactly why it happens, but one theory is that this type of sneeze may happen because of “crossed signals” in your nervous system. Some of your nerve pathways are close together. When you step into light, your brain instructs your eye pupils to constrict. In the instant the constriction signal is sent to your eyes, the sneeze reflex may also be erroneously prompted.
  • Some people sneeze in the cold. Your sneezes start in the lining of your nose, part of your respiratory epithelium — the tissue lining your mouth, nose, throat and trachea. Cold air can dry your epithelium. This dryness can cause a sneeze.
  • Can you keep your eyes open when you sneeze? Most people can’t. The body naturally closes your eyes when you sneeze. Some medical professionals believe the eyes closing is an involuntary reflex similar to moving your lower leg a bit when a doctor taps your knee. The reflex might be to protect your eyes. There was a time when people thought if you had your eyes open when you sneezed, that your eyes could pop out. Rest assured, your eyes are well anchored on their sockets. A sneeze won’t unseat them.
  • Another old-time thought was that the heart stopped during a sneeze. You can take heart — your heart does not stop when you sneeze. (Maybe you never worried about that in the first place!)
  • Some of us sneeze softly with a gentle “ahchoo.” Others nearly roar their sneezes. The difference is likely a combination of our individual anatomies and the amount of control we exert over the sneeze. In a survey, about 45 percent of respondents said they have different sneezes in private and public. They say they can turn down the volume on sneezes when they choose to.
  • Sneezes move a lot of air (and water and mucus particles). That air is moving at an impressive speed of up to 93 mph. The particles can project multiple feet and the smallest particles can even find their way to ventilation ducts. That’s why we’re encouraged to sneeze into a tissue or at least into your arm.

It’s fortunate that sneezes aren’t “contagious” (like yawns can be). But in case you sneezed while reading this, we’ll wrap up with a sincere “bless you.”

If you have concerns about the causes of your sneezes, see your health care professional.

Meet the Author

Anne L. Mattson, MD is a family medicine physician at Aurora Medical Center located in Mequon, Wisconsin

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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