“God, Bless you.”
It’s a rare day you don’t hear this exchange. Whether triggered by allergies, a cold, common daily routine or wildfire smoke, we all sneeze.
I undoubtedly think more about why I am sneezing as opposed to how. We can live perfectly-fine, thank you, without being able to answer certain questions. Why is the Sky Blue? What’s really in a hot dog? Why does our hair turn gray? What is thunder? Why am I math challenged? What actually is a sneeze? By our age, is there anything worth learning about this bodily function? Perhaps.
What is a Sneeze?
To augment your crossword-vocabulary, the official term for sneezing is “sternutation.” In simple terms, sneezing is a reaction – a reflex – to environmental irritants. The most typical include germs, dust, smoke, animal dander and pollens.
It starts unbeknownst to us in nerve endings receiving a kind of tickling sensation. The brain is called on like ghost-busters to get rid of this substance irritating your nose lining. At that point, more that is unbeknownst to us happens.
As you start to sneeze:
- You hold a deep breath;
- Chest muscles tighten;
- Air pressure in your lungs builds up;
- You close your eyes;
- Your tongue presses against mouth roof;
- The air from that deep breath comes out fast and furious mostly through your nose;
- Voila– a sneeze.
Is this Part True?
- Your heart stops when you sneeze?
- Sneezing comes in three(s)?
- You can stop a sneeze if you must?
- You have 3 seconds after a sneeze to keep the devil from getting inside?
- Sneezing is contagious or “catching” like a yawn?
- Sneezing during someone’s statement means it will come true?
- Eating too much can make you sneeze?
Does your Heart Stop? Emphatically, no. So why does that belief persist? In school I (barely) remember learning about the Valsalva Maneuver. [I am certain it was a board question as well.] Valsalva test reproduces the positive pressure in the chest when coughing, straining at the stool – or sneezing. It creates a complex and dramatic physiological process. Possibly, it might even change the heart-beat rhythm within the split second of occurrence, but it doesn’t stop the heart.
An oft-quoted 90s NY Times article presented speculation from Dr. Richard Conti, a past president of the American College of Cardiology. He thought that the belief may stem from the sensation (in throat or chest) of the heart “skipping a beat” before regular rhythm resumes, after inconsequential changes to blood flow. The beat that follows may feel more forceful or noticeable.
More recently (2016), Dr. Nancy Sweitzer, chief of Cardiology at Univ. of Arizona’s Sarver Heart Center elaborated on this ‘sensation.’ Pressure from sneezing reduces venal blood flow into the heart, causing a weaker, less-forceful beat. She explains further:
“The heartbeat is determined by the electrical system of the heart,
which is typically on autopilot and just keeps going.
The electrical activity of the heart is constant through a sneeze, but the mechanical ‘pumping’
may be reduced in force, particularly during a forceful sneeze.”
Bottom line – NO heart stopping.
Sneezing doesn’t come in ‘threes,’ as each of us can attest to either by experience or observation. Neither does a 3-time sneeze mean you are going to win the lottery. [Does anyone win the lottery?] In the Dutch language they say “3-times, the weather will be nice tomorrow;” and I doubt the accuracy of that prediction as well. Multiple sneezing happens due to the amount of irritant or the power of one’s sneeze. Namby-Pamby sneezes aren’t ‘lady-like,’ they are inefficient and require a number more. If your sneeze packs a real punch, you need fewer. Further on myths, your sneeze strength doesn’t necessarily indicate the power of an organism either. A powerful sneeze simply means you more quickly complete the job.
Can you Stop a Sneeze? Unlikely. The nerve ending messages first stimulated may retreat. But sneezes are an automatic reflex; once begun they can’t be stopped.
3-Seconds to protect yourself from the Devil? Evidence is not clear as to exactly when the devil entered the picture. Presumably, about the same time that soul-searching began. The myth signifies beliefs about the soul and why we still hear that “God Bless You” exchange regularly. Stories hold that ancient man believed the soul to be in the form of AIR, located in the head. A sneeze might expel the soul from the body. Conversely, other cultures held that the sneeze forced evil spirits OUT of the sneezer, but that those malevolent ghouls might find their way into an innocent passer-by. Hardly seems fair. There were pagan aphorisms to shield people from the Sneeze-Devils almost 2000 years ago.
Therefore, pagan protocols preceded others. Yet, the more frequent blessing-origination ‘history’ starts in Rome with the bubonic plague raging in the 6th century. Stemming from disease-ridden mice, the plague often presented first with coughing and sneezing. The command for prayers, supposed to bring divine intercession, is attributed to Pope Gregory I (sometimes called St. Gregory the Great.) Evidently, he encouraged people to say “God Bless You” immediately after a nearby person sneezed. If the plague got you nevertheless, at least you would have a plan B to enter heaven. We continue to follow the architect of plan B even today.
Contagious or “Catching?” Different questions really. With an ‘ahhh-choo’, the air rushing out of your nose can travel 100 miles/hour, with the wet-spray radiating 5-6 feet. Moreover, if that’s not enough on the ‘eww’ scale, 100,000 germs can fly out of your nasal canal with that one gush. Cause to cover our nose and mouth for sure. [But please, not with the hand, instead with the antecubital fossa, more intimately known as the inside of your elbow.] Sneezing power clearly demonstrates that diseases can be transmitted that way, thus contagious. BUT can a sneeze be “catching” like a yawn is? I can barely say the word yawn without acting it out, but never noticed that reaction with a sneeze. While emotions can trigger your nasal membranes to shrink or swell (causing a sneezing), studies are unclear about the empathy sneeze. Maybe yes, maybe no….. maybe no. Either way, don’t count on it as a good parlor trick.
Sneezing while someone is declaring a particular sentiment does not make it true, of course. There might be an exception here for MY sneezes. Yours too? In Russia one of the traditional statements when sneezing in the middle of your own sentence is to say “I’m telling the truth.” Hmmmm, what does that say about the rest of the time?
The idea that eating too much can make you sneeze is truly overblown. There is a genetic connection, somewhat whimsically called “snatiation.” In lay terms, this combination word (including satiation and sternutation) refers to the “stomach sneeze reflex.” It is possible that during ingestion (no relationship to food types) neurons activating sneezing are close enough to those of digestion to affect it in these unfortunate gene-carrying people. THAT IS…..IF you carry the gene and IF you gobble so much that another bite is almost impossible. This tempts me to revert to a colloquial phrase – “give me a break.” If you eat that much, sneezing may be the least of your problems. So DO ‘take a break.’
Truth and Oddities
- Pepper contains “piperine,” which stimulates sneezing. Piperine (technically an alkaloid of pyridine) contained in white, black or green varieties, is a typical irritant of mucous membranes.
- “Look at the Light” – a habit that may help complete a sneeze. Light plays a further role for some. Up to 35% of people sneeze when going from dim light and then exposed suddenly to bright light (such as leaving a movie theater). This reaction is the “photic sneeze reflex.” Here’s looking at ahhh-choo.
- We don’t sneeze when we sleep. Nerves involved in sneezing reflexes are also at rest.
- Donna Griffiths from Worcestershire, England holds the current record (since 1969) for a sneezing episode of 978 days.
- Who sneezes the most? Not humans. According to Patti Wood, author of Success Signals: Understanding Body Language, it is the Iguana. It sneezes frequently to rid itself of salts that accumulate due to digestion.
- The nose has an estimated 5 million scent receptors; all ripe for irritation.
- Continuing in the strange oddities category is also the act of plucking your eyebrows and stimulating a sneeze.
“The eyebrows and the nose are both innervated by the same branch
of the trigeminal nerve, which can be stimulated by tweezing the eyebrows.
The neuronal excitation from plucking can travel to the nose
— resulting in a sneeze.”
Dr. Apple Bodemer, assistant professor/dermatology, University of Wisconsin.
[Take a hint from pain relief techniques for tweezing, and squeeze as you pluck. The pressure diminishes pain and the chance of sneezing.]
8. Each day, our nose produces 1-2 pints of mucus. [Well, isn’t that special – and just lovely to visualize during allergy and cold season.]
Risks of Sneezing
“Don’t hold your sneeze in, Honey” a family friend and neighbor used to tell me. You probably have said this to children – or had it said to you. Is it valid advice? Yes. Subduing a sneeze (with whatever technique you have developed) can be harmful. Possible injuries include:
- Ruptured blood vessels in the eye(s)
- Diaphragm injuries
- Ruptured (or weakened) blood vessels in the brain
- Risk of hearing loss (risk low, but quite possible)
An audiologist from University of Arkansas Medical School (UAMS), Dr. Alison Catlett Woodall explains why, although we want to cover our sneeze, we do NOT want to stifle it. “Prior to a sneeze, a significant amount of air pressure builds in the lungs in preparation of being forced through the nasal cavity to clear irritants out of the nasal passages. If the sneeze is held in by pinching the nose or holding the mouth closed, this pressurized air is forced back through the eustachian tube and into the middle ear cavity.”
Dr. Woodall warns that an eardrum can rupture due to the pressure of a sneeze; it can cause middle and/or inner ear damage. She clarifies that this damage is not common but that:
Likely the risk of minimizing is minimal, but why take the chance?
Sneezing Around the World
Responses to sneezing have been with us through the ages. Below are some of the most common.
English – “Bless you” or “God bless you.”
German – “Gesundheit” (meaning ‘health;’ the Irish, Spanish, Finnish and Hebrew words for health are also used).
Greeks and Romans – “Banish the Omen.”
Kurdish – “Kher be” meaning “a good sign, hopefully.”
Polish and Sanskrit — “Live 100 years.”
Icelandic – to 1st sneeze -“God help you;” to 2nd sneeze-“strengthen you;” to 3rd sneeze-“and support.”
Hindu – “Live” and response “With you.”
Zulu – “I am now blessed.”
And my husband’s favorite, although not so common:
Burundian (East African Riff and perhaps other parts of the continent too) – “Be Rich” and response “All of Us.”
A final question reflects on the last of those call-and-responses. Can sneezing make us rich? It depends on the definition. If the humanitarian blessing response of ‘Be Rich/All of Us” refers to social and loving riches (and not material ones) then here is a startling fact – or perhaps just a new myth. Sneezing can make you “Rich.”
Merck Manual (consumer version) – for related anatomy: look inside the nose & throat
NPR. “Here’s Looking Achoo! Debunking The Sneeze” August 24, 2016
UAMS Sneezing Risk – holding a sneeze https://uamshealth.com/healthlibrary2/medicalmyths/holdinginasneeze/
University of Arkansas Medical School. Medical Myths.
Picture Credit from Pixabay 18656-1920