Is Sneezing Good for Your Health?

We’ve all heard the expression, “That’s nothing to sneeze at.” It means the subject is not a trifling matter. But rather one that deserves serious attention.

One subject warranting significant consideration is, drumroll please… sneezing. It’s not something most people can practice or control. But it is worth finding out why it happens. And why we shouldn’t try to stop it. 

Sneezing is an involuntary reaction and can be a tad embarrassing. It requires a tissue and is often followed by an “excuse me” reaction. Not that we should apologize for it.

Stranger still, bystanders will often respond with, “Bless you.” As if they suddenly became priests about to confer sainthood on you for your upper body explosion.

Don’t Try to Stop It

Satish Govindaraj is a doctor of rhinology. It’s a branch of medicine concerned with conditions affecting the nose.

Here’s what he says. “The main cause of a sneeze is some kind of irritation in the nasal lining that triggers the body to expel this foreign substance.” 

Our noses are designed to filter the air we breathe. When something irritates the mucous membranes inside our noses, a sneeze can result.

Sometimes the intruders are bacteria linked to viruses. A sneeze might expel them and help us avoid the common cold. Or something worse. Other times it may be dirt, pollen, smoke, dust or perfume. 

Unfortunately, many of us try to squelch our sneezes. By pinching our noses, for example. That’s the last thing we should do. A sneeze can be a sign that our body is in a healthy fighting mode.     

A Complex Bodily Interaction 

A sneeze – also known as sternutation – often starts as a small tickle in the nose. As that tickle increases, we know a sneeze is coming on.

The tissue lining the nasal cavity is the nasal mucosa. When it recognizes an irritant, it sends a message through the trigeminal nerve to the brain stem. Nerve signals then race to muscles in our chests, throats and faces.

What else occurs during a sneeze? The tongue comes up to the roof of the mouth so what is expelled exits through the nose.

The eyes close involuntarily and the diaphragm thrusts upward simultaneously. Meanwhile, chest muscles contract to push air out of the lungs.   

‘Achoo’ Is More Than You Think

What else can cause a sneeze? According to Scientific American, more than one-third of us sneeze when exposed to a bright light. The phenomenon is known as photic sneeze reflex.

Other possible triggers for a sneeze include a full stomach, breathing in cold air and feeling cold.

The sound we often make while sneezing is something like “achoo.” But did you know that achoo also stands for “autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst?”

I’ve steered clear of grossness so far, but I can’t resist this. Air that exits a nose during a sneeze can contain 40,000 droplets. And travel at about 100 miles per hour for 10 feet. That’s stronger than some weapons.

Once, Twice, Three Times a Sneeze 

An unofficial survey revealed that most people sneeze twice when they sneeze. A single sneeze and three sneezes are also common.

When you sneeze more than once, your body might be putting in extra effort to rid itself of contaminants. Or irritants are not leaving in an orderly fashion.

That’s why we tend to sneeze more often when sick. Especially with an upper respiratory infection. We also sneeze more while breathing in stuff we’re allergic to.

Another benefit of sneezing is it can reboot your cilia. Those are the hair-like structures found on the surface of tiny cells lining the tissue inside your nose. As puts it, “a sneeze resets the entire nasal environment.”

Good for the Goose… Not for the Gander

Now, it’s great that the body has a natural way to expel irritants including viruses. But we should be careful where we’re sneezing. We don’t want to infect those around us with our microbes and bacteria.

It’s recommended that people sneeze into a tissue and dispose of it promptly. Or into their upper arm or elbow if they don’t have a tissue.

Many people sneeze into their hands. Unless they immediately wash their hands, that’s not a good idea. It’s too easy to spread germs with your hands. 

Regardless of where we sneeze, it’s a good idea to wash our hands as quickly as possible afterward.

Sneezing Facts & Folklore

I thought I’d conclude today’s communication with some facts and folklore about sneezing.

  • Fact: Plucking your eyebrows might make you sneeze. It can set off a nerve in your face that supplies your nasal passages. 
  • Folklore: If you keep your eyes open during a sneeze, they may pop out of your head. Fortunately, this is not true.
  • Fact: Some people sneeze after engaging in sex. Apparently the parasympathetic nervous system fires off signals to sneeze following sex.
  • Folklore: Your heart stops beating when you sneeze. Your heart rhythm might momentarily change, but your heart keeps beating. 
  • Fact: The iguana is the “sneeziest” animal on Earth. They sneeze frequently to remove salts that are a byproduct of their digestive process. 
  • Folklore: If you sneeze, company is headed toward your home. And if your cat sneezes, it’s going to rain. Who knows how those myths evolved?
  • Fact: The longest recorded sneezing spree lasted 978 days. It’s mentioned on the Library of Congress website. 
  • Folklore: A blessing following a sneeze will keep your soul from escaping your body. I would think that’s rather difficult to prove or disprove.

Thanks for reading. Hold on… I’m feeling a tickling in my nose.  

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Marie - April 27, 2022

I agree completely with Barb.

“Bless you” after someone sneezes likely originated in Rome when the bubonic plague was ravaging Europe. Sneezing was one the plague’s main symptoms, and it is believed that Pope Gregory I suggested that a tiny prayer in the form of saying, “God bless you” after a sneeze would protect the person from death.

Barb - April 27, 2022

You DO realize that”God Bless You” after sneezing started during the Black Plague? It was meant as a prayer for protection? I am offended at your comment

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