Sneezing can, at times, be really embarrassing because of its sheer intensity. Some sneezes are mild as a cat’s tsi-tsi-ing: soft, hardly audible and very restrained and contained.
But then there are the violent, loud and body-shaking trumpets of sneezes that send plates, cups and saucers flying and rats scattering for cover.
We have seen people sneezing and, as a result of the act, involuntarily dropping what they are holding, or veering off the road as they drive. Patients, well on the road to recovery, have died after an unexpected full pressure sneeze that burst blood vessels.
A sneeze takes control of the muscles in the belly, chest, diaphragm, muscles controlling your vocal chords, those in the back of your throat, and those that tell your eyelids what to do. People almost always close their eyes when they sneeze.
And a sneeze can spread disease by producing 400 000 tiny infectious droplets and sending them flying out of your nose or mouth at up to 100 miles per hour!
Just what is a sneeze and what purpose does it serve?
Basically, a sneeze is the end product of a process called sternutation.
According to the American Academy of Neurology, sneezing is a reflex designed to protect the respiratory system.
“A ticklish feeling in the nose starts a reaction that activates the nerves that make you sneeze. It’s basically a really fast exhalation through the nose and mouth designed to eject offending alien objects, such as pollen or a tiny bug.”
When the inside of your nose gets a tickle, a message is sent to a special part of your brain called (surprise, surprise) the sneeze center. “The sneeze center then sends a message to all the muscles that have to work together to create the amazingly complicated process that we call the sneeze.”
Researchers aren’t sure exactly why the sneeze reflex happens, writes M. Sherborn of the Boston Globe, but whatever neurological message tells the eyes to close probably comes from a primitive part of the brain called the medulla oblongata in the brain stem.
“It’s not just an irritation in the nose that can trigger a sneeze,” says Doctor Bonnie Henderson, director of comprehensive ophthalmology at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, “some people, probably because of genetics, have a photic reflex, which makes them sneeze in response to sudden, bright light.”
Almost anything capable of irritating the inside of your nose can initiate a sneeze, says Vonda Sines (How and Why Your Nose Betrays You). She says common culprits include cold air, dust, and pepper.
“When the virus that launches the common cold takes up short-term residency in your nose, it causes swelling, irritation, and sneezing,” says Sines. “Allergic sneezes typically result from exposure of sensitive individuals to pet dander or spring or fall pollen. Other common instigators include strong odors such as paint or turpentine, sudden chills, and even sex.”
When we write, we tend to try and put into words the sound of a sneeze. ACHOO!
About one out of three people suddenly sneeze when they step into the sunshine. This is the photic sneeze we mentioned earlier. However, its medical name is Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Opthalmic Outburst syndrome (ACHOO for short).
“If you suffer from this condition,” says Sines, “blame your biological parents, because it’s an inherited trait. In fact, most people have at least some sensitivity to light that can trigger a sneeze.”
Then there are times when someone looks like the walking dead. Mouth gaping open, drooping jaw, eyeballs tilted upwards making strange sounds, like Ah, eh, heh. And then nothing. Except a wet nose and teary eyes. Sneezes sometimes simply get “stuck” without reaching completion.
Sines says that when this happens, one should try looking briefly toward a bright light, but never the sun, to bring on the sneeze.
In recent years it has been shown that stifling or holding back sneezes can cause damage to the sinuses as well as the inner ear. This is due to the back flow of air pressure. The symptoms of this can include tinnitus, or reduced high frequency hearing, and in extreme cases, rupturing of the ear drum.
But why do our eyes close every time we sneeze?
‘’It is unclear, but scientists theorize that we close our eyes to protect them. We may be protecting our eyes from microorganisms and particles from our sneezes,” Henderson said.
But, says the paper, it could also be simply because a sneeze is a kind of bodywide reflex in which a lot of muscles contract, not just in the nose and throat but also those in the diaphragm, the abdomen, thighs, back, even sphincters (which is why some people with stress incontinence may urinate slightly when they sneeze).
In English-speaking countries, it is common for someone to say ‘Bless You” after someone sneezes to which the sneezer answers by saying ‘Thank You.’
Next time you sneeze and some stranger looks at you and says ‘Gesundheit’ to you, do not punch the poor fella, please. That’s what Germans say after someone sneezes and it conveys the same feeling and message of good will as ‘God Bless You.’ Interestingly, ‘Gusundheit’, although said as a parody, is quite popular with Americans as well.
Are there any ways to stop sneezes?
It is not recommended that we attempt to stop a sneeze because “the very kind of percussion involved in a suppressed sneeze can wreak serious injury, mostly to the structures within our heads.”
We must understand why we sneeze. We are reminded that ‘sneezing isn’t just a useless quirk that your body takes part in just to inconvenience you. In most cases a sneeze is the body’s way of getting rid of stuff in your nose that can cause irritation. In other cases a sneeze is associated with a cold, evacuating about 40,000 infectious and microscopic droplets that would otherwise do you harm. The only physically bad thing about sneezing is the spread of disease, which can be prevented by using a tissue or, if necessary, sneezing into your sleeve.’
Forcing a sneeze back might do us harm.
“For example, you can create a prolonged “ringing” sensation, or affect your hearing, which may or may not be temporary. There’s also a chance of bursting an eardrum,” writes Kate Chase (Associated Content). “You can actually tear blood vessels and muscles within the head. A sinus hemorrhage is also possible, and it’s reported that more than a few older people have actually sustained brain injury and possible death just out of fear of committing a social faux pas like a violent sneeze.”
However, several remedies are suggested:
*Press your tongue behind your two front teeth, where the roof of your mouth meets the gum palate or alveolar ridge. Press hard with your most powerful muscles against your teeth until the tickling sensation dissipates.
*Hold your breath. Sneezing requires inhaling and expelling air so ‘no air, no sneeze.’
*Swallow saliva continuously until the urge disappears.
*Hold your eyelids open since it is next to impossible to sneeze with eyelids open.
*Gently bite your upper lip, applying mild pressure “to distract the nerves in your nose.”
*Look up with your eyeballs only, without moving your head.
But why bother with all these funny little twists and turns, making faces to oneself? At 100 miles per hour, a sneeze is here and gone before we know it. Let it pass!
“Sneezing is a phenomenon that is common to all humans and is widespread in the animal kingdom as well,” says Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. “It may play an important role in maintaining health in ways that we don’t currently understand. It is rarely a sign of serious illness or impending disaster as feared by previous generations. On the other hand, it can be remarkably annoying, as anyone with significant seasonal allergies or a bad cold can tell you. Perhaps the most important “take-home” message I can offer is to mention again the importance of covering your mouth and nose when you have a cold that triggers a sneeze.”
Just let it pass!