What happens when we sneeze? Does our heart skip a beat? Are we just getting rid of something that has gotten into our respiratory system? A sneeze also known as “sternutation” is your body’s way of getting rid of irritants from your nose or throat. These irritants can include bacteria, viruses, mold, dander, dust and perfumes. A sneeze is a powerful involuntary expulsion of air. A sneeze can happen suddenly and with out warning. When the nerve endings in the lining of your nasal passage are stimulated, your sneeze center in your lower brain stems sends out signals that cause you to take a deep breath and hold it. Air pressure in your lungs increases, your chest muscles tighten and your throat and your eyes close. Your chest muscles contract vigorously and your throat muscles relax, abruptly forcing air from your nose and mouth at about 100 miles per hour and sending out a wet spray that can radiate five feet. The sneeze reflex can be provoked by a number of things. It’s normal to sneeze more than once. Particles trapped in your nasal passages are not all expelled on the first sneeze. It can take more than one attempt to get all the irritants out. This can lead to multiple sneezes in a row. A number things can trigger a sneeze. This can include sunlight, exercise and sex. The changing pressure in your chest due to sneezing can also change your blood flow, which can change the rhythm of your heartbeat. Muscles involved include your abdominal muscles, the chest muscles, the diaphragm (the large muscle beneath your lungs that makes you breathe), the muscles that control your vocal cords, the eyelid muscles and muscles in the back of your throat.
The CDC has pointed out that if you sneeze while driving at 60 mph you may travel 50 feet with your eyes closed. Distracted driving in the United States kills nine people per day. Most people are tempted to hold in a sneeze in a crowded place or when talking to friends. Most of the time we have to sneeze when we don’t want to. Research suggests holding a sneeze can be hazardous to your health. It can sometimes cause serious complications. I didn’t come across any reported deaths of people dying by holding in their sneezes. But it is possible to die from holding in a sneeze. Injuries from holding in a sneeze can be very serious. Holding in a sneeze increases pressure inside your respiratory system to a level of about 5 to 24 times the pressure caused by a sneeze. Ruptured brain aneurysms, ruptured throat and collapsed lungs are some of the more serious conditions holding a sneeze can cause.
Did you know that plucking your eyebrows could cause you to sneeze? Eyebrow plucking stimulates the trigeminal nerve that supplies sensation to the face, firing impulses that reach the nerve endings inside your nose and sparking the sneezing reflex.
Exercise can also make you sneeze. Working out can cause you to hyperventilate, which can dry your nasal passages. Your dried nasal passages will trigger your nose to increase mucus secretions, which will stimulate your nerve endings that provide sneezing. Heavy breathing also stimulates your diaphragm, contributing to your sneeze reflex.
Bright light can trigger a sneeze. Between 18 and 35% of the population sneezes when exposed to sudden bright light. When a sudden flood of bright light stimulates your optic nerve, it fires a signal to the brain to constrict the pupils. Some of that electrical signal is picked up by the nearby trigeminal nerve and mistaken as a nasal irritant. This light sensitivity is an inherited trait. This condition is called “photic sneeze reflex”. To keep this “photic sneeze reflex” under control wear sunglasses.
Having sex can trigger a sneeze reflex too. Physical intimacy activates the “parasympathetic nervous system” that controls involuntary reflexes. These are reflexes that include sexual arousal and sneezing. Your nose like your genitals contains erectile tissue that can become engorged during arousal, which can provoke a sneeze.
The “God Bless You” expression could have also originated from superstition. The custom of asking for God’s blessing began when ancient man thought that the soul was in the form of air and resided in the body’s head. A sneeze might accidentally expel the spirit from the body unless God blessed you and prevented this from occurring. Other ancient cultures also thought that sneezing forced evil spirits out of the body endangering others because these spirits might now enter their bodies. The “God Bless You” was given to protect both the person who sneezed and others around them.
Still others believe your heart stops when you sneeze and “God” carries you through those seconds your heart is not beating.
Other cultures have beliefs about sneezing. In China, Vietnam, South Korea, and Japan, there is a superstition that if talking behind someone’s back causes the person being talked about to sneeze. The sneezer can tell if something good is being said if there is one sneeze. If something bad is being said if there are two sneezes in a row.
I hope you now know what happens when you sneeze.