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Why Do We Sneeze?

Everyone in the room is quiet. Perhaps you’re at a fancy function. Or it’s the most dramatic scene of a movie. Either way, you feel a tickle in your nose and the imminent premonition that you’re about to ruin the mood. There’s nothing you can do to stop it and you let out a big sneeze or even multiple sneezes. As disruptive as sneezing may be, it serves a very important purpose for our bodies. Here’s why we sneeze and tips on how to possibly prevent it.

The Science of Sneezing

Sick woman in blue holding a cup of tea and sneezing into a tissue
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The primary purpose of a sneeze is to remove irritants, such as dust, dirt, and pollen, from the nasal passage. Sneezing also plays an important role in fighting the spread of bacteria. The body’s natural reaction to infection is to produce mucus to trap bacteria. Sneezing is the most efficient way to expel that mucus from the body.

Sneezing only takes seconds to happen but it’s a whole-body affair. As soon as your brain sends the command to sneeze, your body automatically begins to prepare. Within seconds, your eyes shut and your muscles contract to brace for the pressure. Your tongue then redirects the majority of the air through the nasal passage but still allows some air to escape from the mouth, like a pressure relief valve. The sudden force of air clears out anything and everything that shouldn’t be in your nose.

Naturally, some people’s sneezes are more powerful than others. The weaker the sneeze, the higher the possibility is that you will need to sneeze multiple times to expel whatever’s in your nasal passage. It’s common for people to sneeze two to three times in one session and some people even sneeze up to 10 times in a row.

Other Reasons We Sneeze

Man in striped shirt standing outside with a tissue, preparing to sneeze
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Even when there aren’t irritants or bacteria present, your nose produces mucus to catch potential irritants before they can get to your lungs. Sometimes, through normal production, the nasal passage gets too full and needs to be reset. Whenever you get a random sneeze that seems to be out of nowhere, it’s most likely just to reset your nasal passage.

There are also some unconventional reasons why we sneeze. For example, about one in four people sneeze when they look into a bright light. This is called a photic sneeze reflex, and it’s an inherited genetic trait. The leading theory is that certain stimulation of the optical nerve causes the same sensation in your brain as irritation in the nose, but a firm explanation still eludes researchers.

Can You Prevent Sneezing?

Man standing outside and sneezing in the bright sunlight
Credit: PeopleImages / iStockPhoto

Sneezing happens for a reason, so it’s a good idea to just let your body do what it’s naturally supposed to do. But there are some ways to help minimize the cause and effect.

The best way to avoid sneezing is to keep a distance from your triggers when possible. For instance, if you’re allergic to cats, it’s in your best interest to stay away from the felines to prevent a sneezing attack. But if you do encounter one of your triggers, there are over-the-counter anti-allergy medicine and nasal sprays that can help alleviate symptoms.

Many people pinch their nose right before a sneeze to stop the action. While it may stop the sound, it also doesn’t allow the sneeze to do its job. All the irritants and bacteria that were supposed to be removed are still in your nasal passage, causing more harm than good.

There are also plenty of old wives’ tales claiming that doing odd things like saying “pickles” or tickling the roof of your mouth with your tongue will distract you and stop the sneeze. There are no scientific facts to back these up, but if it works for you, by all means, keep it up!