Why do people sneeze?

Why Do People Sneeze?

One of the main things we need to consider is…is…ACHOO! Sorry, we need…ACHOO!

Sneezes always seem to come upon us at the most inopportune times. Whether you’re in the middle of a business meeting, asking out that hot date, or carrying a huge tray of food, sneezes seem to follow their own schedule and not our own.

So what are sneezes and why do they happen? After all, ever person on the planet sneezes from time to time, usually twice in a row, and most animals do so as well. What’s behind this amazing, and often annoying, marvel of nature?

Source: Shari WeinsheimerSource: Shari Weinsheimer

Below we’ll discuss the following about sneezes:

– What are Sneezes?
– Why Do People Sneeze?
– Fun Sneezing Facts

Alright, grab your box of tissues and get ready – we’re going to learn about sneezes!

What are Sneezes?

First of all, sneezes aren’t called sneezes, at least not by scientists. The medical term for them is sternutation, which encompasses not just you sneezing, but all the bodies process that lead up to it. A sneeze might occur in our nose, but first messages have to be sent from our brain and muscles and nerves have to react. It’s really a whole-body-event!

Our noses are quite the magical things. Inside of our nose are our nostrils and our sinuses. Within those are cilia, tiny sensors that can detect minute quantities of dust, particles – really anything that shouldn’t be there. When there’s enough of this unwanted material we sneeze.

Think of those cilia as a sleeping nest of friendly bees. When dust or something else gets in your nose these sensors send signals to the airwaves to send a blast of air up. This cleans out the sinuses and nasal cavity, or nose, but also gets the cilia into action.

For the next couple of minutes they’ll be moving about, kind of like bees buzzing about after their hive has been disturbed. They’ll go to work cleaning things, setting things aright, and generally getting their house back in order. When everything is as it should be they’ll settle down once again, although ready for the next intrusion.

For these cilia to function properly they need mucous, which is really no problem because our bodies produce a liter of this substance each day. While we swallow most of it, a fair amount can be expelled from our bodies through sneezing. Anyone who’s held a tissue to their face while sneezing and then taken a look at it can attest to this!

Why Do People Sneeze?

There are many reasons why you may sneeze, and quite a few common causes. Listed below are the prime culprits:

– Smoke
– Pollution
– Mold
– Mildew
– Dust
– Pepper
– Cold air
– Pollen
– Strong fumes or odors
– Animal dander
– Allergies/allergic rhinitis
– Nonallergic rhinitis
– Swelling and/or irritation of the nasal passages
– Light, such as sunlight

That last one might give some people pause. Sneezing because of light, really? Actually, yes, and this is called photic sneezing. It occurs in about 1 in 4 people and it’s a genetic condition that’s inherited and causes people to sneeze when exposed to light.

Perhaps you’ve had a friend that sneezes each time they go outside. Perhaps their body just needs to get over that initial shock of light, and a sneeze is one way for their body to do it.

Other than that most of the items on the list are pretty well-known. Most of us have seen a movie or cartoon where some character or animal gets a whiff of pepper and starts sneezing, and that’s really what it’s all about – the nose getting irritated by alien invaders and then doing its best to expel them.

Fun Sneezing Facts

Here are some fun, humorous, and often eye-opening facts about sneezes:

– Sneezes travel at 100mph or faster;

– You can’t sneeze in your sleep as the nerves are asleep as well;

– Exercise can make you sneeze as you hyperventilate, your nose gets dry, and you sneeze;

– Sex can make you sneeze when the parasympathetic nervous system gets worked up afterward;

– Iguanas sneeze more than any other animals as this is the way their bodies get rid of excess salts from digestion;

How to Stop Sneezes

Sure, sneezing is important and necessary for the body, and it shouldn’t be disrupted. But we’ve all been in those situations where sneezing isn’t the best of things. Perhaps it’s a busy meeting, a crowded cinema, or even while you’re driving. Sneezing twice is one thing, but sneezing over and over again for a minute or more? Wow, that gets old!

Here are a few things you can do to stop or prevent sneezes:

– Infections: Sometimes it’s just that our sinuses are infected or irritated in some way. Most of the infections can be cured.

– Allergies: Countless people the world over suffer from allergies, and they usually know it. If you’re one of them then you know the medicines and other preventive measures, such as staying indoors or avoiding certain areas, that will help you.

– Cleaning: Perhaps the easiest, although not always the most enjoyable way to keep yourself from sneezing, is to keep your home and other environments clean. That means dusting regularly, making sure mold doesn’t form, and having fresh air circulating.

For many people, it’s possible to stop the urge to sneeze. Some of the most common methods are:

– Pressing your tongue flat against the roof of your mouth
– Pressing with your finger on the area just under your nose, above your upper lip

You should not try to physically hold a sneeze – after it’s already pass the “critical moment”. Trying to block the sneeze itself (not just the urge to sneeze) may be dangerous – with damage to the diaphragm or ear drums being just two of many possible, negative outcomes.

Sneezing is a way of life, and an important part of all our lives, so don’t try too hard to prevent it. While sneezing isn’t always convenient, it is healthy and normal.


Glass, Don. “Sleep On, Sneeze Not.” Feb. 27, 2004. Web. Retrieved Jan. 14, 2014 http://indianapublicmedia.org/amomentofscience/sleep-on-sneeze-not/

Breitenbach RA, Swisher PK, Kim MK, Patel BS. “The photic sneeze reflex as a risk factor to combat pilots.” Mil Med 158 (12): 1993. p 806–9.

Further reading

MedlinePlus – Sneezing
wikiHow – How to Stop a Sneeze
WebMD – Allergies Health Center