Written By: Yeira Wong
Even before the pandemic, I would always shudder when someone around me let out a loud sneeze, especially if they did not really get a chance to cover their mouth in time. A sneeze can travel all the way up to 100mph! I understand that it is completely natural to sneeze, but it does not make it any less gross knowing that germs and spit particles are traveling right to me from the sneezer at such a fast rate. I never really think about sneezing except for when it happens to me or someone else near me, but I’ve realized that I have so many questions surrounding it. What exactly is happening to my body when I sneeze? Why do we sneeze? Or even is it bad to hold a sneeze in?
What is happening?
When you sneeze, your body is involuntarily expelling the irritants in your nose and throat through a powerful, release of air. Irritants include dust, dirt, anything you may be allergic to like pollen, or even just breathing in cold air. Cold air can dry up our nasal mucus which can crack and trigger a sneeze as the nerves will identify them as other irritants.
The irritants that enter you nose are sensed in the nasal lining by the hair-like structures on cells known as cilia. They send a message the sneezing center in the brain through sensory trigeminal nerves, which are 12 nerves that all come from the brain. The sneeze centre then communicates with other parts of your body to help you sneeze. This includes your chest muscles, which help compress your lungs, your vocal cords, to close and suddenly open as well as your diagram to upwards and force air out of your lungs as they are being compress. So much is happening at once, as your eyes are also reflexively closed and can potentially tear up as well.
Like many people, I have also experienced sneezing several times in a row and feeling rather embarrassed after it as it seems weird. Sneezing several times, one right after the other is caused by the fact that the first sneeze may not have removed the irritant, so the second sneeze occurs. Each person’s sneeze may be different as their sneeze might not be as strong depending on their nerves or even their lung capacity. This may also happen because people may respond differently depending on the amount and type of thing they are exposed to.
Holding Sneezes In
When you hold a sneeze in or intentionally close your mouth when sneezing, it can lead to an increased amount of pressure in your nasal passages which can result in damage to the eyes, nose, and eardrum blood vessels. While it typically shouldn’t cause too much harm to the body, it can still potentially cause some serious consequences; issues like a ruptured eardrum, middle ear infection, diaphragm injury, aneurysms, throat damage, or even broken ribs. It’s just generally less healthy to hold in one’s sneeze, and a study even shows that men may be at a higher risks for such injuries if they hold a sneeze in.
Back in elementary school, we had a forensic unit where we discussed genetics and some of the obvious physical traits that come from genes that we have. For example, having a widow’s peak, or feeling more comfortable with one’s right thumb over their left when folding one’s hands together. However, I distinctly remember learning that some people were so sensitive to light that they would sneeze when transitioning from a very dark to a relatively light place.
This kind of sneezing is known as the phoetic sneeze reflex (PSR) or ACHOO (autosomal dominant compulsive helio-ophthalmic outbursts of sneezing) syndrome, which is an inherited trait, hence why I learned about it in elementary. It is caused by sudden exposure to light which triggers the reflex, and results in 2-3 sneezes consecutively on average. Apparently, 18 to 35 percent of the population carries this trait. The main issue with this reflex is how it could potentially be dangerous for someone operating vehicle to suddenly start sneezing when exiting a dark area into a much lighter one.
Overall, sneezing is just your body’s way off trying to keep you safe by expelling things that may harm you. However, it important to be hygienic and considerate to those around you, so please, please, please, cover your mouth when you do!