Why we sneeze: Science, myths and more
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — While on one hand just a basic bodily reflex — sneezes also come with tremendous variance in sound, a long history of superstitions, myths and fun facts.
In Polish culture, if you sneeze it is believed that your mother-in-law is talking ill of you.
In Italian culture, it’s good luck if your cat sneezes — especially on your wedding day.
In Scottish culture, a newborn baby was believed to be under the power of a fairy until it gave its first sneeze — which then broke the spell.
The things that make us sneeze varies from person to person, as does the frequency and force. There are scream-sneezers, fairy princess sneezers and people who always sneeze three times.
As kids, we hear things like, if you try to keep your eyes open or plug your nose while you sneeze, your eyes will pop out of your head.
At the most basic level, a sneeze is “our body’s way of clearing things out,” said Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic.
It can also be looked as a “reset” or “reboot” for the nose, he said, or a “self-cleaning mechanism.”
Just like your lungs cough to expel irritants and contaminants, your nose sneezes, he said.
Very sensitive receptors — nerve endings — inside our noses detect particles or swelling, which can then trigger a sneeze, Sigmon said.
Allergies or head colds can cause membrane in the nose to swell, which can cause more frequent sneezing, he said.
It is an involuntary reflex, and one that causes you to lose control for a moment.
But it isn’t achoo to everyone. That’s primarily associated with the English speaking world. Here are a few variations from across the globe.
- France: Achoum!
- Japan: Hakashun!
- Germany: Hatschi!
- Turkey: Hapsu!
- Portugal: Atchim!
After the nerve endings of the trigeminal nerve sense something — like dust, odors, chemicals or other particles — they send a message to the brain. Once a critical threshold is reached, the brain triggers the sneeze reflex.
And as the reflex forces a sudden intake of breath, the sneeze is inevitable.
An area at the back of the throat closes, the diaphragm contracts, and eyes close.
Then the pressure is released, and air, mucus, saliva, dust and germs fly out of the nose and mouth.
It’s a powerful reflex, notes Sigmon, and not one you should try to stop.
The stuff that comes out can travel as fast as 100 miles an hour, as far as about 26 feet and contain as many as 50,000 droplets.
So of course, it’s good to try to protect others from your germs, but there is no sense in stopping a sneeze.
Can you get hurt sneezing?
It’s rare, but possible, Sigmon said. In his career, Sigmon said he hasn’t seen any sneeze injuries.
But they do happen.
In 2004, Chicago Cubs start player Sammy Sosa sprained a ligament in his lower back after two violent sneezes caused back spasms.
There are also reports of broken ribs caused by sneezing.
Other potential injuries that have been linked to holding in a sneeze — causing a buildup of intense pressure — include a ruptured eardrum, a middle ear infection, damaged blood vessels, a diaphragm injury and a brain aneurysm, according to healthline.com.
Why do people sneeze so differently?
Some of that can be habit-related, Sigmon said, such as for those who try to sneeze as quietly as possible.
Some studies have found people sneeze differently in public and private.
But there are also numerous other variants, like body size, muscle strength and lung capacity. Sneezes can be affected by the size and shape of the neck and head, as well as the amount of air inhaled.
Some people force the sneeze through the nose, while others let it come out of their mouths.
In terms of frequency, Sigmon said that often relates to the strength of the sneeze. For some people with a vigorous sneeze, one time satisfies the body’s mission to evacuate the nose. For others, it takes three times to accomplish the same task.
What makes people sneeze?
Beyond particles in the air or colds and allergies, there are a few interesting things that make people sneeze.
There are certain chemicals and odors that tend to trigger sneezes, like perfumes or tobacco.
Pepper is an obvious one, which contains the alkaloid piperine.
Tweezing eyebrows is a cause because of the same irritation of the trigeminal nerve, which causes the face to send a signal to the nasal nerve.
About 35% of the population is affected by the “photic sneeze reflex,” which means bright light makes them sneeze, especially when moving from dim light to bright light. The reflex is thought to be genetic and is something about which scientists are still learning.
The term “snatiation,” which combines “sneeze” and “satiation,” affects people who sneeze when they have a very full, or overfull, stomach. It is also something not fully understood in the medical community, but it could have to do with some sort of glitch related to the proximity of sneezing neurons to those activated during digestion.
Around the world and throughout history, sneezes come with a variety of cultural beliefs and superstitions. In many cases, sneezes are thought to be a good omen and bad in others. Here is a sampling:
- Ancient Greeks, Egyptians and Romans believed sneezing was a sign of the gods revealing the future.
- East Asian countries believe if a person is being talked about behind their back, it causes them to sneeze loudly (one sneeze good, two sneezes bad).
- A sneeze while getting dressed, leaving the house or before work is considered a bad omen for the day.
- The soul leaves the body for a moment during a sneeze.
- Evil spirits can enter the body during a sneeze.
- If a sailor sneezes on the starboard side of the ship as the vessel departs, it will be a lucky voyage. But a port side sneeze means the ship will encounter foul weather.
Is there a connection between sex and sneezing?
There is some research around sneezes as a response to a sexual reflex, noted Sigmon. There is a rare condition in which people have uncontrollable sneezing fits whenever they are aroused.
More commonly heard is the notion that a certain number of sneezes add up to an orgasm. Both reflexes release endorphins; however, the amount in a sneeze is far less than an orgasm. For the most part, it is considered a myth — no amount of sneezing is going to give you an organism.
As sexologist Vanessa Thompson said in an article in Business Insider, “If sneezing was the equivalent to orgasms, I imagine we would see a lot more pepper sales and a lot less brothels.”
Does your heart stop when you sneeze?
No, it doesn’t. And it doesn’t skip a beat. However, it can slightly alter the rhythm due to the increase in pressure in the chest during a sneeze, which reduces blood flow from the veins into the heart from the veins.
Why do people say “God Bless You?”
There are a few theories, but the most accepted goes back to the plague epidemic that wiped out about half of the population of Europe during the 6th century. Urging divine intervention, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God Bless You” after a person sneezed, as a sneeze was one of the first signs of plague.
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