Health

Why do people sneeze?

– Asks BJ from Santa Monica, California

January 28, 2008
The secret of the sneeze [Credit:Evah Smit]
The secret of the sneeze [Credit:Evah Smit]

God bless you! Gesundheit! Cover your face!

When you sneeze, you are likely to hear one of these responses, ranging in inspiration from the medieval to the hygienic. Different cultures throughout history have interpreted a sneeze as either an auspicious sign or a bad omen, but it may be said that both are right: Sneezing is the good that gets the ill out.

“Sneezing is basically ‘nature’s broom,’” says Dr. James Banks, an allergist and immunologist in private practice in Arnold, Md. “It is a way our bodies purge foreign matter that has invaded our noses.”

Particulates are the usual suspects, including dust and common allergens like pollen or animal dander. Sneezing also expels unwelcome germs when we are sick, which has given rise to the sanitary concerns about honking away in public places. And for good reason: a single sneeze can produce some 40,000 aerosolized droplets containing a hefty amount of infectious organisms, according to a 1998 article in the American Journal of Infection Control.

It’s not just allergies and illnesses that can produce that familiar tickling in the nose. Banks explains: “People sneeze for a lot of reasons other than just getting something up their noses. Clinically speaking, we consider sneezing a non-specific reaction, because there are a lot of sources that irritate.”

For example, some people experience a round of sneezing after a large meal, which has led to the coining of the term snatiation, a combination of sneeze and satiation. There is also a phenomenon with a known genetic basis called the photic sneeze reflex, which causes about one-third of people to sneeze from looking at a bright light source, such as the sun. Sigmund Freud has even speculated on the kinky psychological origins of an otherwise innocuous sneeze.

“Overall, it is not a clear-cut reflex,” says Dr. David Kaufman, an associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at New York University Medical Center (an otolaryngologist is most often referred to as an ear, nose and throat specialist).

Like blinking or breathing, sneezing is a semi-autonomous reflex, meaning we exercise some conscious control over its mechanism – we can try to restrain ourselves or submit and start reaching for a tissue.

The act of sneezing itself, technically called sternutation, usually begins as an electrical signal that is triggered by a trespassing particle’s contact with nerve endings in the mucous membranes of our sinuses. This neural message then travels to the brain stem, which is located in the lower rear of our head where the spine connects to the brain and controls rudimentary bodily functions such as respiration and swallowing.

Once the command for a sneeze has reached the brain stem, an all points bulletin” is sent throughout the body’s musculature and a powerful, coordinated contraction takes place. Our eyes are forced closed, and other facial, chest and abdominal muscle groups are recruited as well. Some muscles actually anchor and brace us while in the throes of a nasal outburst to avoid unintended bodily injury.

“They keep us from jet-action, throwing ourselves across the room,” says Banks.

A typical sneeze has a velocity of about 100 miles per hour (160 kilometers per hour), an impressive hurricane squall, while a regular breath idles along at just 5 mph. That 20-fold increase usually serves to eject whatever it is that is causing the offense, but some people have to blast out several sneezes, oftentimes hilariously, before finally getting a well-deserved break.

Scientists have yet to come up with a good explanation for why most people sneeze the predictable two or three times, while others are wracked by staccato attacks. But the answer seems to lie in an individual’s unique immunological and neurological constitution.

“Multiple sneezes are more common in allergenic individuals, especially those with an ongoing chronic stimulus of some sort,” says Banks.

What if you hold in a sneeze? There is the often-repeated fear that an internal backfiring can burst capillaries in the sinuses or eyes, injure the delicate inner ears or even cause a stroke.

Dr. Clark Kaufman, a pediatric allergist in private practice in Lancaster, Pa., thinks this is unlikely. “It’s not dangerous,” he says. “Most people do it all the time and get away with it.” But he cautions that as your body may be trying to dislodge something, it’s probably not a good idea to hold back on a routine basis.

So chances are you won’t do any permanent damage if you quash that sneeze during a job interview or a date. To help suppress the urge, try placing your index finger under your nose.

“This sends sense signals to your brain using the same neural pathways that a sneeze does,” advises Banks. By doing this, you can “overload your neural circuitry” and prevent the sneeze from occurring.

In lieu of putting a finger to the face in a gesture that unintentionally mimics a mustache, Banks also recommends breathing through one’s mouth, as this will decrease turbulence in the nose and may help thwart the impending “atchoo.”

On the other hand, if you have a sneeze that refuses to come out or go away, and you’re grimacing awkwardly in public, close your mouth and inhale through your nose to further excite the nerve endings. This will assist in getting you across the threshold so the sneeze reflex kicks in, and then you can just let ‘er rip.

After all, if Freud is to believed, sneezing is actually sort of sexy – though don’t expect to hear “hubba hubba” the next time you do.

Subscribe

The Scienceline Newsletter

Sign up for biweekly updates

About the Author

Discussion

49 Comments

jerod says:

u tell me nothing…where does the ******* sneeze come from…y do i ****** sneeze

jerod again says:

umm y again do i sneeze

jerod again says:

ummm yeah its me again i was in the bathroom i and i thot u mite have said something back guess not umm i still need this answer

jerod again says:

hey guys its me jerod…yeah whats up uhh still need this answer anytime u get the chance

jerod again says:

sup my home brother im kinda feeling left out my buddy here knows y i sneeze im still waitin on this answer..thanks bud

jerod again says:

well buddy this will b my last comment i think of u as a good friend and ill always remember u if u could just one time reply to these comments id just poop my pants really id b flattered thanks buddy..luv u long time

SooB says:

ummm Jerod…it’s not that serious….Let it go brother…just think of it as getting all the cobwebs out of your head and enjoy the clean sweep.

SooB says:

Does this help?

The act of sneezing itself, technically called sternutation, usually begins as an electrical signal that is triggered by a trespassing particle’s contact with nerve endings in the mucous membranes of our sinuses. This neural message then travels to the brain stem, which is located in the lower rear of our head where the spine connects to the brain and controls rudimentary bodily functions such as respiration and swallowing.

Once the command for a sneeze has reached the brain stem, an “all points bulletin” is sent throughout the body’s musculature and a powerful, coordinated contraction takes place. Our eyes are forced closed, and other facial, chest and abdominal muscle groups are recruited as well. Some muscles actually anchor and brace us while in the throes of a nasal outburst to avoid unintended bodily injury.

Sydney says:

Very long, you should put more stuff about why people close their eyes when they sneeze.
But this helped with my science project:]

vontae says:

why do i have to blink

Sami Kaadan says:

when u sneeze u blink because the air and dunno what else come out from your mouth get out in the speed of 40km/s to 50km/s. If u tried to keep your eyes open, they will bulge out.

Alex Russo says:

Y do we suck in more air 2 sn33z3 when we r tryn 2 make it come out

bridget paschall says:

This guide really stinks. My 5 year old husband can tell more more about sneezing. Just to tell u my husband and i have 4 children, and im pregnant with another one. Well this guide says nothing, and the information is all wrong!

Tiff says:

you guys should really get a life…that has nothing to do with sneezing..jerks…anyone at any age could really need this answer and read your crap..

Lucy says:

i don’t know what you guys are talking about because this helped me.

rene says:

yea im really not getting it. this really dosent tell me why do people snezze.but id still like to know.

DarkCat says:

the real answer would be no one knows
while many say its due to the lack of oxygen it was recently proven wrong. It has been also said that its also due to one being horny but i wouldnt go with that, all this info isnt fake its just explaining the “how” a sneeze happens
It is also said that when one yawns to much even when not tired would be a way to cool your head down by breathing in deeply a nice amount of cool air through the nasal passage which then helps you clear up yr mind helping to think better.

betty says:

Why did that weird woman start calling people jerks? Where did that come from?

betty says:

and the other woman who has lots of kids. Did you know, having so mandy children doesn’t make you more intelligent. Anyone can open their legs lady!

Marie says:

Jerod, read 2 Kings 4:35 in the Bible and see that sneezing is a sign of life. Some say allergies I think not, because pepper can make you sneeze, awakening the senses

Sarah says:

lol betty is funny

Ris says:

I find it hilarious everyone says this doesn’t tell you why people sneeze, when it definitely does. It says at the beginning of the damn article that it acts to clear out invading particles through the nose, but is also triggered by some unknown factors (staring at bright light, over eating, and unusual things like that).

heyd'e says:

wow!…. yea i sneeze about 20 times continously after piking up my laundary.

Morgan says:

Why do i sneeze? When i do sneeze its constantley about 20 to 30 times and i dont STOP. This website doesnt and didnt help me! I would also like to know what causes sneezing!! :P

Rachel says:

Thanks SooB you helped me alot for my extra credit thing!

werd says:

You guys are saying a bunch of crap

Me says:

First- like “tiff” said, KIDS READ THIS STUFF FOR PROJECTS OR PERSONAL EDUCATION, so act like adults (ex: BETTY, no child needs to read about how someone has kids! If you know she has kids, you know how she got them, for all you know, she is a successful adult who is a wonderful mother! You saying rude things like that just makes you look like the one who is ignorant.)
Second- IF YOU PEOPLE WOULD OPEN YOUR EYES, YOU WILL SEE THAT PEOPLE EXPLAINED a million times now the reason you sneeze. If you can’t get the answer by reading it here, ask your doctor or google the question and maybe you’ll find the answer in simpler terms. Or go to WebMd, they answer tons of questions too.

me says:

what the fuck do i sneeze i dont get it??? ugghh

Liz says:

If you really needed the answer, then you wouldn’t be so lazy about reading! The first two short paragraphs tell it, and so do some of the posts! You sneeze when your sinuses are irritated by foreign particles (dust, pollen, lint, germs, etc.) that enter your nose. It’s your body’s way of forcing them back out. Duh.

clare says:

i sneeze when i’m full

Ukalale says:

When you need to sneeze why does it help to look at the light?

Gate420 says:

Sneezing is the body’s attempt to remove blockages, germs, antigens and irritants from the nasal passage.

Your nose is the air filter for your body. Almost all the tiny bits of dust and dirt we breath in through our nose are filtered out so the air is clean going into our lungs. The tiny particles are either stopped by the hairs in our nostrils or get stuck in the mucus in our nasal passages. When the lining of our nose gets irritated by these particles, we feel a tickle in our nose, triggering a sneeze. During a normal sneeze, we take in a big breath, then expel the air very forcefully out through our nose and mouth, hopefully expelling the offending particle from our airways.

Some people sneeze more frequently because they have allergies. When people have allergies their noses are more sensitive to specific irritants such as pollen, (especially at Spring when the flowers are blooming).
When people have a cold their noses are more sensitive and thus more easily irritated.

John says:

Holy crap, you people who keep saying that the article doesn’t tell you why you sneeze are IDIOTS. Read the f-ing article! “Why do I sneeze? Why do I sneeze?” My god, you must have been the worst students your teachers have ever encountered, as your reading comprehension and laziness is utterly pathetic.

mia says:

This was interesting but say less things next time, i got very tired of reading and so did my friends but i made them read i all.

debra says:

Okay so what it you never sneeze my son who is now 4 Has never sneezed in his life and this is not me not being able to remember this. He has autism could this have something to do with it. Or is this something that is normal, he has been sick with thing that made both his sisters sneeze. I am just wondering

bekah says:

thank you i liked it very much and some peple are just mean like number one

dued says:

wait no that info was a piece of shit

BriBri says:

I’m writing a paper about sneezing and this really helped me thank you!

lol says:

lol sneezing lol

Rachel says:

My teacher wanted to know about sneezing, and this did not help me at all! I’m writing a bad report on this website.

Bede says:

Rachel, after all this info u still cant do your project?! C’mon u cant be serious.

Lalallla says:

I jut asked my brother why people sneeze and even he knows he’s only 6 well I read it to him but he understood it

paul corley says:

I suffer periodic megrain type stuffy headaches which can last all day – and sometimes all night – then I will have a bout of sneezing and the pain and discomfort will lift, could it be related to my sinuses?

noob says:

LMFAO @ Jerod

Zak says:

I thought you sneezed because demons were inside you…. just sayin

Michal says:

@ zac i have a lot of demons then

Romanissac says:

Wow, half of you people are just stupid. The other half are wasting your time. Why do I sneeze? Because my nose tickles… Move on… Lol

steben says:

Stupid article.. Stupid to hold a sneeze.. Just sneeze it out la.. idiotic article.. God create us this way.. why violate your body..

goodhealth says:

This is stupidity… who will hold a sneeze.. Just let it out.. STUPid articles..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *