March 30, 2014 — Leave a comment

I have a fickle nose, I was telling one of my coworkers the other day, which is a blessing and a curse. There was some slight sour smell when I walked into my office and she said she didn’t notice it. Turned out one of our tiny plants was starting to rot and emitting that sourness. Which got our conversation going on smells and then finally sneezing. I told her how, curiously, I sneeze almost routinely, during the first instance of exposure to bright sunlight and how I actually heard on some feature on npr that it was perhaps genetic. She looked skeptical, so I did a quick online search and shared with her my findings on the subject better known as reflexive sneezing induced by light, AKA, photic sneeze reflex (PSR) or the ACHOO, autosomal dominant compulsive helio-ophthalmic outbursts of sneezing syndrome.

According to an article published in Scientific American, Why does bright light cause some people to sneeze? PSR occurs in 18 – 35% of the population and its genetic nature has been known for at least the last 25 years. (I noticed this happens to my mother, too.) “Observations that emerging from dim light into sunlight or turning to face directly into the sun commonly triggers the reflex prompted early inquiries into the trait. The number of induced sneezes–which seems to be genetically mediated and can be predicted within a family–is constant from episode to episode and typically numbers two or three.” And there are consequences to drivers and pilots in the military it seems. Unfortunately, exactly how sunlight causes people to sneeze remains unknown.

What do you and I really know about sneezing? Let’s see, shall we?


We know sneezing helps keep our bodies safe, clearing the nose of bacteria and viruses. According to WebMD, when something enters our nose or we encounter a trigger that sets off our “sneeze center” in our brain, located in the lower brain stem, signals are rapidly sent to tightly close our throat, eyes, and mouth. Next, our chest muscles vigorously contract, and then our throat muscles quickly relax. As result, air — along with saliva and mucus — is forced out of our mouth and nose. And sneezes travel 100mph. That stuff, I pretty much knew. But the other facts were surprising.

  • We don’t sneeze in our sleep because our sleeping nerves are dormant
  • Plucking our eyebrows may set off a nerve in our face that supplies our nasal passages that cause us to sneeze
  • Exercise can make us sneeze. We hyperventilate when we’re over-exerted, and as a result, our nose and mouth start to dry up. So our nose reacts by starting to drip, making us sneeze
  • The longest sneezing spree is 978 days! a record set by Donna Griffiths of Worcestershire, England, according to the Library of Congress

Of course, I couldn’t stop there. And my searching led me to How to Sneeze Properly, an article published earlier this month in Business Insider. Read the full article. It’s telling and good. I pulled my favorites.

Holding it in vs. Letting it out (this one’s a pet peeve): The most common mistake people make when sneezing is just that — trying to hold it in. According to Jonathan Moss, Ear Nose and Throat specialist, “Don’t! The process of sneezing is a defensive reflex. The body has to expel foreign particles, such as dust or pollen, that enter our upper airway.” Because a sneeze causes high pressures in your internal airways, holding it in can be harmful. But it causes problems only in rare situations. “These complications can include hearing loss, forcing air into the eye or brain, rupture or clotting of blood vessels, or breaking a rib,” Moss said. (I came across this article–a tragic story that happened two days ago, a 17-year old boy died of a brain haemhorrage after a sneezing fit.)

Can you keep your eyes open when you sneeze? It’s possible. According to Moss, once the “sneeze center of the brainstem” has been stimulated, it sends multiple muscle contraction signals to your body. One of them tells your eyes to close. “While it may not be impossible to keep from closing your eyes, it would take a conscious effort to keep them open,” Moss said.

The best sneeze inceptor: open-hand catch? Wait-was-that-a-cough closed fist? Or the quick-quick grab a tissue?

So, is it the open-hand catch?

open hand sneeze 1.gif

From “Qualitative Real-Time Schlieren and Shadowgraph

Or the wait is that a cough closed fist?

fist sneeze.gif

From “Qualitative Real-Time Schlieren and Shadowgraph Imaging of Human Exhaled Airflows: An Aid to Aerosol Infection Control,” By Julian Tang, et al

Or the quick-quick-grab-a-tissue?

tissue sneeze 1.gif

From “Qualitative Real-Time Schlieren and Shadowgraph Imaging of Human Exhaled Airflows: An Aid to Aerosol Infection Control,” By Julian Tang, et al

The winner: “Lots of tissues,” says Dr. Julian W. Tang of the Alberta Provincial Laboratory for Public Health, who’s conducted several studies on the proper way to catch your sneeze. Tang said, and wash your hands after. No matter the sneeze catcher, the amount of snot stopped has a lot “to do with how fast you can cover your sneeze.”

And last… I came across this free online game, SNEEZE. So mindless and absolutely hilarious and fun. Pretty twisted too.

So remember: Let it fly–into a tissue please. Happy Spring!




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