The tickle at the back of your nose lets you know that within seconds you’ll be sneezing. A sneeze is also called a sternutation. This explosive release of fluid and air from your lungs, mouth and nose is involuntary and many times your body’s response to irritants in your nasal cavity.
During a sneeze your soft palate comes down and the back of your tongue rises to close off your mouth, routing most of the air from your lungs through your nose. But, since you can only partially close of your mouth with the soft palate and tongue, a considerable amount of air and fluid will also exit through your mouth.
The volume of your sneeze may change over time. In some, the sneeze is loud and voluminous while others give a small toot. However loud or large, your body uses a sneeze to rid your nose of an irritant, germ or mucous and to clear the passage for better airflow. Pet dander, dust, pollen and germs are all common reasons to sneeze, but your body responds with a sneeze to other triggers as well.
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, you’ll likely have experienced the irritating and burning sensation in your nose that immediately precedes a sneeze. Those protein-based allergens are irritating and frustrating. Sneezing protects your body by clearing your nasal cavity of viruses and bacteria. Scientists know that more than allergens and germs trigger this sensation.
Sneezing starts in your nervous system when signals passing along your nerves, take different paths to and from the brain. This can result in different ways in which people experience sneezing. For instance, you may have experienced a sneeze when plucking your eyebrows that triggered a nerve supplying your nasal passages, and thus you sneeze.
Exercise and sex are two surprising triggers for sneezing. During hyperventilation the mucous membranes in your mouth and nose begin to dry up. In response, your nose may begin to drip and trigger a sneeze. Sex stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system that may trigger signals during orgasm, resulting in sneezing.
It is not uncommon to sneeze more than once, or several times in succession. The reason you may sneeze multiple times is related to the reason you started sneezing in the first place. In other words, sometimes it takes two, three or even four sneezes to rid your nasal cavity of what irritates it.
Researchers have found evidence that sneezing may be a natural way your nose and brain reboot in much the same way your computer reboots after Microsoft Windows’ infamous blue screen of death. Biochemical signals regulate the beating of microscopic ciliary hairs that line your nasal cavity triggering a sneeze and literally resetting the environment within your nasal cavity to near normal conditions.
Data suggests that those who suffer chronic sinusitis may have limited ability to clear their nasal cavity despite the outward appearance of a normal sneeze. There are many superstitions surrounding sneezing that have developed over years and many cultures. For instance, it is not true that your heart stops during a sneeze. Instead, your chest contracts and your blood flow may be constricted, changing the rhythm of your heartbeat, but the heart definitely doesn’t stop.
During a sneeze your eyes involuntarily close, giving rise to the superstition that your eyes will pop out of your head if your lids are not closed tightly during a sneeze. Despite the discomfort closing your eyes may elicit while driving, there is nothing you can do to keep your eyes open while sneezing, much like the involuntary reflex you have when the doctor taps the tendon under your knee cap.
Just as not all cultures have the same superstitions about sneezing, not all people make the same noises. It appears the sound you make when you sneeze is related to your culture and what you learn as you grow up. Those who are deaf from birth sneeze in a more organic fashion, where those who can hear feel compelled to add sound effects.
However, those sound effects are not identical from country to country. Those who speak English often sound like “aah-choo,” whereas the French use “atchoum” and the Japanese use “hackashun.” In the Philippines, when sneezing, the individual will verbalize “ha-ching.” Noises made in different cultures may be modified but they are often easily identifiable across cultures. Sneezing will naturally produce a sound that you aren’t able to control, but you are able to modify the sound to what is socially appropriate in your culture.
Different from the English sound of sneezing, an ACHOO is actually the acronym for autosomal cholinergic helio-ophthalmologic outburst, sometimes also referred to as autosomal-dominant compelling helioophthalmic outburst syndrome. For some, bright lights can initiate a burst of sneezing, also called the photic sneeze reflex. When you sneeze you release fluid from your nose and mouth, thought to travel between 10 and 100 miles per hour. The droplets can travel up to 26 feet and stay airborne for minutes.
You may be tempted to stop a sneeze, but doctors warn this may cause physical damage. Pressurized air will always take the path of least resistance, which is normally out of your body through your mouth and nose. With this avenue blocked, the highly pressurized air passed up the Eustachian tube and then down the esophagus, ripping through the soft tissue. While tearing the esophagus may not be immediately painful, the resulting air in the neck area leads to symptoms not often seen in the emergency room.
Although rare and unusual for someone to be able to close both nose and mouth enough to force air into the esophagus, case reports warn that trapping a sneeze may cause damage to your eardrums; it could even cause a brain aneurysm. A blocked sneeze may also damage your diaphragm or break a blood vessel in the whites of your eye, causing bruising.
Let’s face it, sometimes when you need to sneeze, the situation can be awkward. You might be in the middle of a large lecture hall, during vows at a wedding or while playing during a band performance. To stop the spread of bacteria and viruses from coughing and sneezing, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends you sneeze or cough into a disposable tissue and then dispose of the used tissue, followed by washing your hands.
If you don’t have a tissue handy, sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow and not your hands or lower on your arm. This deposits germs high up on your clothing where it is less likely they will be transferred to another. If you feel a sneeze on the way and want to nip it in the bud, there are a couple of tricks that won’t cause physical harm and may stop the sneeze.