Whether you have a cold, are allergic to something or simply stepped out into the bright sunshine, chances are you’ve sneezed sometime recently. It’s time to get the lowdown on what’s up with these nose explosions!
Sneezing — also called “sternutation” — is your body’s natural, reflexive way of getting rid of something irritating inside your nose. All sorts of things, such as dust, cold air and pepper, can irritate the inside of your nose and trigger a sneeze.
Sometimes you sneeze when you catch a cold or the flu. When germs and viruses make a home inside your nose, they can cause swelling and irritation. Likewise, allergies to animal dander, pet hair or pollen from plants can cause the same sort of reactions within your nose.
When the inside of your nose becomes irritated, special nerves send a message to your brain. Your brain then sends a message to all the parts of your body that must work together successfully to cause you to sneeze.
Although your body does it automatically, sneezing actually involves complex coordination of several different parts of the body. Your belly muscles, chest muscles, diaphragm (the “breathing” muscle underneath your lungs), vocal cords, throat muscles and even your eyelids must all work together perfectly to create a sneeze.
Your eyelids? Yes! Did you realize that you always close your eyes when you sneeze? And it’s a good thing, too. You probably don’t want to see what flies out of your nose and mouth during a sneeze.
When we say “fly,” we mean fly. Sneezing can send those irritating particles flying out of your nose at 100 miles per hour. Scientists estimate that one sneeze can send up to 100,000 germs into the air.
So when your parents and teachers tell you to use a tissue or sneeze into your inner elbow, they know what they’re talking about. Sneezing is one way that cold germs and flu viruses are spread so easily.
Have you ever noticed someone who sneezes — sometimes multiple times — when stepping out into bright sunshine? Their nose isn’t necessarily irritated, and they’re probably not allergic to the sun. Instead, they’re a photic sneezer.
Photic means “light,” and photic sneezers sneeze when exposed to bright light. It’s a genetic trait, which means if you’re a photic sneezer, you inherited it from your parents.
No one really knows why photic sneezing occurs, but experts believe the condition affects 18 to 35 percent of the population.
Photic sneezing actually has a complicated scientific name: Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst Syndrome. However, most scientists shorten this long name and refer to the condition as “ACHOO Syndrome”!
When you sneeze, you will probably hear other people say something like “God bless you!” or “Gesundheit!” (the German word for “health”). Experts believe that these sayings developed in response to ancient superstitions that held that sneezing was related to evil spirits.
There was also an ancient myth that claimed that your heart stopped briefly during a sneeze, but that’s not true!