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What Happens While We Sneeze?

Updated: Mar 7

Author: Kelly Zeng

Editors: Jasleen Matharu, Kira Tian

Artist: Tiffany Chen

Ah Choo! Did you sneeze today? Well, for some unknown reason, I sneeze every day. I was curious, and so I did some research on sneezing. And guess what? I found some surprising fun facts that I bet you haven’t heard of—let's check them out!

Sneezing, also called sternutation, is a way for your body to remove irritation from your nose. It's an automatic reflex that cannot be stopped once it starts. The process begins with a tickle touching the inside of your nose, then a message of “invasion” is sent to the sneeze center in the medulla of your brain. The sneeze center announces to all of your muscles to work together to create a sneeze. Yes, all muscles. Sneezing is a full-body workout that involves muscles from the abdominal, the chest, the eyelids, and the diaphragm. “Just before you sneeze, pressure builds up in your chest as your chest muscles compress your lungs, and your vocal cords close,” says Dr. Mynes, “When your vocal cords suddenly open again, the air is driven up your respiratory tract and through your nose at a high speed. Your eyes shut and your diaphragm moves upward as your chest muscles contract, releasing air from your lungs”. This forces the air, saliva, and mucus out of your mouth and nose at a speed of 100 mph. About 100,000 contagious germs could fill the air and reach a five-foot radius. These germs can carry harmful viruses, so be sure to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze.

Have you ever heard that your heart stops when you sneeze? That is a myth. The truth is that sneezing changes the pressure in your chest, and that alters your blood flow, possibly changing the rhythm of your heartbeat. But your heart keeps beating throughout the process of sneezing. This myth also links to the origin of the phrase, “Bless you”. There’s a belief that sneezing is a near-death experience because the heartbeat stops, and a blessing will keep you alive. Another explanation for this custom phrase is that Pope Gregory VI in the sixth century would bless those who sneezed so they wouldn’t fall ill to the plague.

An interesting fact about sneezing is that people don’t sneeze when they are asleep because the nerves involved in the reflex are also resting. On the contrary, there is a group of people called photic sneezers (photic means light) that sneeze when experiencing a sudden change of light, for example, the moment they step into the sunlight. The frequency of sneezing depends on your surroundings, allergic conditions, the sensitivity of your nose, and health conditions. Common causes of sneezing include dust, cold air, or pepper. And when you are sick, the virus lives in your nose and causes a lot of swelling and irritation. So, to clean out the irritants, you often sneeze when sick.

You may notice that mucus has different colors, and it means something. You should see your doctor if it is green, yellow, or brown. Also, it’s impossible to sneeze with your eyes open—you can try it out next time. A tip about sneezing is that trying to hold in a sneeze can hurt because it can cause broken blood vessels in the eyes, brain, and ruptured eardrums. However, you can suppress the urge to sneeze by rubbing your nose or pressing your upper lip underneath your nose. Sneezing is a common reflex that you don’t need to feel ashamed of, but be sure to cover your mouth and nose while sneezing.



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You Sneeze—and Why.” The Healthy, 25 Feb. 2020,

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“What Makes Me Sneeze? (for Kids) - Nemours Kidshealth.”, 2020, Accessed 31 July 2021.

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