The Science of Sneezing: The Healthy Sneeze

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Almost Impossible to Stop a Sneeze. Image by abc123.

Sneezing,  a respiratory reflex, also called sternutation, is an involuntary burst of air through the nose or mouth or both.

Everyone sneezes at some point in their life. A sneeze is a protective reaction to a nasal passage irritation or inflammation from a virus, an allergy or a bacterial infection.

It can be powerful – or a tight wheezy noise you make when clamping your lips shut to avoid the explosion of air and mucus. Sneezing is also often the first signal of a viral cold, but can result form a number of different activities.

Triggers of Sneeze Reflex

Mucus and cold symptoms of runny nose – rhinorrhea – are the typical culprits to blame for your sneeze, but there are many and varied causes.

Examples of sneeze causes are:

  • Dust/powder
  • Dry air
  • Allergy
  • Nasal sprays
  • Spicy food
  • Nervousness or anxiety
  • Opiate drug withdrawal

Where Do Sneezes Come From?

Despite the various outside influences causing a sneeze, the process actually starts in the nervous system. Information is sent to the brain that something in the nose, an irritant of some sort, needs to be expelled.

This is a healthy protective response when it results in a sneeze – or 2 or 3. This propulsion can sometimes be as fast as 100 miles an hour and send thousands of germs into the air.

The nervous system itself can have different triggers resulting in a sneeze. For example, stimulating the parasympathetic part of your system can cause sneezing to erupt before or after sex, during certain movements, when exposed to bright lights (sun), or when you’re breathing hard. The sneeze center is located in the brain stem, in a section of the medulla.

This area of the brain is subject to hypnotic suggestion – for example, a friend of the author developed a hypnosis-induced sneeze. Every time he craved a cigarette, he would sneeze, distracting him from his impulse to smoke. Once he understood this signal, he stopped sneezing – and resumed smoking.

Single Sneezes or Several Sneezes at Once?

Some people never sneeze just once, but several times in a row. The irritant may not be dislodged by a first sneeze but may send signals in the form of a string of histamines causing several sneezes. Those with allergies may always need a few sneezes to clear the passages. It’s also possible that multiple sneezers simply have esophageal and pulmonary memory of repetitive sneezing as the norm, and muscle memory takes over.

There have been reported cases of inability to stop sneezing and inability to sneeze.  In the former, a pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorder (PANDA) was the cause along with a strep infection for a 12 year old.  Eventually, immunoglobulin treatment helped the girl stop sneezing.

An inability to sneeze is rooted in the lateral medulla (sneeze center)  block or tumor and is reversible.

Both cases are extreme and unusual examples and not meant to frighten anyone into thinking they have a disease if they have either a succession of sneezes or a sneeze buildup that doesn’t erupt in sneeze once in awhile. 

Can I Make Myself Sneeze? (And Can I Make Myself Stop Sneezing?)

Although you can make yourself burp, it is far more difficult to make yourself give a true sneeze. We can only examine this involuntary non-lethal (though some might argue that the sequela, or that behavior which results from the sneeze, such as breath holding, momentary closed eyes while driving, or a spike in blood pressure, can be lethal) build up and release of mucus and congestion and air as an interesting phenomenon or a common bodily expression.

The powerful spontaneous propulsion from the sneeze reflex is difficult to stop, so it’s better not to try. In the article, Why you should never stop a sneeze, Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctor Joseph Donzelli compares the process to stopping a speeding race car suddenly.  Ear drums can burst and the throat closes while the pressure inside the head increases.

Of course, you will have an occasional desire to suppress a loud sneeze in a group meeting or solemn event.  Clamping your lips tight, and letting your tongue settle on the roof of your mouth may work momentarily – but the irritant causing the sneeze is still there, and eventually must be expelled.

Sneezing, a Tiny Death experience? La Petit Mort

A sneeze is not a tiny death moment any more than an orgasm is an actual tiny death. Exertion may cause the eyelids to flutter and the heart rate to change, but there is no final cessation of breath as blood rushes to the head via intrathoracic pressure.

A change in beats is not a total heart block and rarely does a sneeze result in death. We say “rarely” because the sneeze itself doesn’t directly kill – but the act of closing the eyes and losing focus when driving or stepping off a curb can cause an accident.

Sneezing induced by sexual ideation or orgasm is an under-reported phenomenon, but most people who sneeze have recently breathed in some dust, are suffering from allergies, or are getting a cold.

We say Bless you after a sneeze, possibly because of an ancient theory that the soul may leave the body during a sneeze. The soul gone, the devil, or an evil spirit, enters – but a “Bless you” hopefully prevented this tragedy.

Today, we sneeze, someone blesses us, and we compose ourselves, post-sneeze, and say thank you.

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