Sneezing: You Can Run But You Can't Hide

James Thompson, MD Health Pro

    Sneezing is a universal reflex which has many different styles and intensities but in most people, serves the same purpose. The first sneeze may occur at any age often starting in infancy. Although sneezing can be annoying, especially when it occurs repetitively, it is an important defense mechanism.



    Why do we sneeze?

    Sneezing is a reflex response (occurs without conscious thought, through nerve networks between the brain and the upper airway) to a trigger which is often an aerosolized particle. It begins with a trigger stimulating nerve endings in the upper respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract (URT) includes the nose, mouth, sinuses and throat.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    Have you ever eaten something that made you sneeze? The reason why this occurs is because there are nerve based sensors in the nose and throat area which upon being stimulated by certain substances, rapidly send signals to the sneeze center of the brain. The sneeze center is located in an area of the brain called the brain stem (lower part of the brain inside the skull). The sneeze center subsequently sends signals, through nerve networks, to the eyes lids, throat and mouth. They all are signaled to close tightly while at almost the same time, the chest muscles contract, building up high pressure in the lungs. The final step is the mad rush of air that bursts through the upper airway expelling saliva and mucus.



    Sneezing may be triggered by:

                                                    -allergen or irritant particles (dust,                                                                         chemicals, drywall, tiny carpet fibers)


                                                    -fragrances, gases or fumes


                                                    -pepper or other spices


                                                    -bright sunlight, wind or drafts


                                                    -arousal, exercise or even from

                                                                  plucking eyebrows




    The small droplets of a sneeze have been tracked at about 100 miles per hour and have the ability to carry 100,000 germ particles. You might ask, “What would necessitate such a potential deadly spray of germs?”

    Thanks for asking! The sneeze reflex is actually a defense mechanism for getting rid of small foreign particles, germs and excessive mucus that land in or build up in the airway. Without the sneeze reflex many of us would be overcome by the increased mucus response of the upper airway to such agitation (from particles or mucus). An obstructed nasal and upper throat passage is not good for nasal function. The nose has important roles which include conditioning and filtering the air, as well as defending the lungs and throat from foreign particles and germs.


    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:

    Now that we understand how important the sneeze reflex is to our health, let’s talk about the negative aspects of sneezing.


    Sneezing once or twice may be gratifying but five or more times may be irritating to the nose and throat, trigger headaches and cause considerable embarrassment as the “God bless you” utterings are outpaced by them. Non-stop sneezing, a rare problem, may be followed by fatigue and exhaustion.

    Although sneezing may benefit the sneezer by getting rid of germs, this may be bad news for people in the same room or building when the droplets contain highly contagious virus or bacterial particles.


    How can you reduce sneezing episodes?

    Understanding the cause and trigger factors associated with sneezing is crucial to managing it when uncontrolled. Allergy tests may identify allergic triggers. A complete exam to identify upper airway infection or inflammation is important. Environmental controls for allergen and irritant triggers may be very helpful. Your doctor may recommend certain medications based on your evaluation.


    For sneezing caused by colds or flu, the best thing to do is to stay home according to many health providers. The next best thing is to have tissue around to sneeze into. But if you are caught off guard try sneezing into the arm on the side opposite the elbow (crook of the arm) with your head turned away from anyone nearby. Wash your hands immediately after sneezing into them even if you have tissue. Remember to throw away used tissue.


    Bottom Line

    It appears there is no place to run or hide when a sneeze is aimed in your direction (particularly indoors). The better move is to help others by containing your sneeze and otherwise taking some sick days when you have an infection associated with coughing or sneezing.


    Do you know who holds the record for the longest sneezing fit?

    What’s the most number of times you’ve ever sneezed?









Published On: April 30, 2014