It’s a question as old as time – Why do people sneeze? Okay, so it may not be the “age-old question” most people think of when that phrase comes up, but realistically it has probably been asked for as long as humans have walked the earth.
Sure, there are some logical assumptions we can come to when wondering about the reasons and sources of those occasionally disruptive expulsions of air and bodily fluids. Blockages, being an obvious one. Allergies, another. But most people don’t really know for sure what causes sneezing, and certainly don’t know how to keep it from happening.
Why Do People Sneeze?
The most common reason for a sneeze is that your body is doing its part to keep your nasal passage clear, a state of affairs conducive to effective breathing. Whether it be mucus from a cold or flu, or some outside material such as dust, pollen, smoke, or even pepper, a sneeze is your body’s way of getting whatever it happens to be out of you as quickly, and sometimes as violently, as possible.
As you gear up to sneeze, your body will react to whatever the irritant may be. This causes a large inhalation, a tightening of chest muscles, and a build up of pressure. Your eyes will then close as your tongue pushes against the roof of your mouth. This ensures that the sneeze is pushed out through your nose rather than your mouth. After that, it’s show time. The subsequent expulsion of air may be loud or quiet, powerful or timid, substantial or minimal – there are as many different sneezes as there are noses, coughs, or hiccups.
Fun Facts About Sneezing
Despite the fact all people understand sneezing is a natural body function, there are still a number of interesting sneeze facts that would come as a surprise to most. For example, sneezes can travel at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour, while carrying up to 100,000 germs to spread around the room. Also, some people have a light sensitivity that makes them sneeze in bright sunshine. For other people, that trigger is sex or sexual thoughts (and researchers aren’t really sure why this is). Interestingly, it is apparently very rare to sneeze in your sleep because the nerves that trigger sneezing are asleep as well.
One common myth is that it is impossible to keep your eyes open while you sneeze. Closing our eyes is a natural reflex our bodies experience during a sneeze. However, contrary to popular belief, it is in fact possible to sneeze with your eyes open. And no, your eyes won’t pop out of your head, despite what you might have heard.
What Do You Say When Someone Sneezes?
Of course, now that you understand why that guy next to you on the plane just sneezed all over your lukewarm teriyaki chicken, the question becomes what is the polite thing to say to him? In North America, the traditional response has always been “bless you”, although that seems to be losing popularity these days.
Around the world, responses are mixed, although most involve some form of wishing the person good health. In German-speaking countries, people say “gesundheit,” which means “health.” This is also a pretty common response in the United States.
Some countries have different responses for each of the first, second and third sneezes, should they occur. In many Latin American countries, it starts with “salud” (health), but then rather bizarrely goes materialistic with “dinero” (money) for number two, before heading back into sentimental territory with “amor” (love) for the third. Presumably, if there is a fourth sneeze it is acceptable just to flee from the room.
So, to answer the main question, a sneeze happens because your body has detected something it wants to get rid of, and a sneeze is the fastest and most efficient way it knows. As to the rest – how to sound, what to say, and whether or not to keep your eyes open – well, those are entirely up to you. Just be sure to cover your nose with your arm first.