What Is a Sneeze (Sternutation)?

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Sneezing allows your body to clear irritants from the throat or nose. A strong, involuntary expulsion of air, sneezing is technically called a sternutation reflex and usually appears suddenly and without warning. Although sneezing can be highly annoying, it tends to be harmless and doesn't indicate a serious health issue.

Why Do People Sneeze?

Sneezing begins when an irritant enters your nose. The substance triggers nerve endings that communicate with a brainstem region called the medulla, which manages automatic activities like breathing, digestion, and heart rhythm.

This trigger ignites a physical response that starts with closing your eyes, taking a deep breath, and relaxing your throat muscles. These actions are followed by an abrupt release of air, saliva, and mucus from the nose and mouth that can travel up to 10 mph. And it all occurs in seconds.

What Causes Sneezing?

When your throat or nasal mucous membranes become irritated, you sneeze. Various things can agitate these areas, such as:

  • Allergens like pollen, dander, mold, and dust
  • Viruses, including the common flu or cold
  • Triggers such as dry air, air pollution, spicy foods, and powders

Sneezing is one of the first signs of colds and allergic reactions. By producing aerosol droplets that retain the infection-causing viruses, these germs spread, and healthy people breathe them in, causing some ailments to spread.

Common Sneezing Triggers

Sneezes occur for different reasons, some of which science doesn’t understand. In most cases, a foreign object enters the sinuses and tickles the nose. Common sneezing triggers include:

Environmental Irritants

Strong scents, perfumes, peppers, and tobacco smoke can make people sneeze, as can physical irritants like sunlight. Since these bouts of sneezing are caused by irritation, not allergies, they are considered non-allergic rhinitis.

Environmental Allergies

Allergies are a common condition brought on by an immune response to outside organisms. While your immune system usually reacts to dangerous intruders like viruses and bacteria, it mistakenly identifies harmless particles, such as dust mites and tree pollen, as harmful. Sneezing is one of the many ways your body tries to rid itself of these substances.


Sneezing can also be a symptom of viral infections like the common cold and the flu. These viruses cause nasal mucous membranes to swell and become irritated, leading to runny noses, nasal congestion, and sneezing. Like its response to allergens, the body releases histamine when fighting an infection.

Dry or Cold Air

The neurological mechanism that causes a sneeze begins with physical stimulation of the extensive trigeminal nerve, which stretches across the face and skull. This nerve reacts to mechanical, chemical, and tactile stimulation, as well as pain and temperature sensations. Therefore, moving from one temperature to another or being cold can result in sneezing.

How to Treat Sneezing

There are multiple ways you can reduce sneezing. If your sneezing is caused by an irritant or allergen, the first step is reducing exposure. For instance, addressing sources of mold can help people with allergies, while only visiting non-smoking establishments and changing perfumes could make a difference for those sensitive to irritants. Air filters can also be a great choice.

If sneezing results from allergies or sickness, use over-the-counter antihistamines. For allergies, opt for a medication that addresses your other allergy symptoms as well. For viruses, medications like Coricidin and NyQuil contain antihistamines and reduce other cold and flu symptoms.

Antihistamines are not helpful when sneezing is caused by chemical or physical irritants.

Sneezing FAQ

Why Do We Close Our Eyes When We Sneeze?

When you sneeze, your eyes close automatically as part of the involuntary process. With some effort, some people can keep their eyes open when they sneeze, and, contrary to the wives’ tale, their eyes won't pop out of their heads.

In fact, the most likely reason you close your eyes when you sneeze is to keep vapor particles from entering the eyes.

Is It Bad to Hold in a Sneeze?

Holding back a sneeze carries several rare but serious hazards like hearing loss, vertigo, blood vessel damage, and eardrum rupture. When you sneeze, your body creates pressure, and if it’s not released, it can build up in the ears and blood vessels.

If you feel the urge to sneeze, it’s best to let it happen. And because it’s an automatic response, much like a yawn or hiccup, it often comes regardless of how much you fight it.

Why Do Some People Sneeze Multiple Times?

Researchers don’t currently understand why some people sneeze multiple times. It may imply these sneezes aren't as powerful, or it could be a symptom of persistent nasal irritation in those with allergies.

Can You Sneeze in Your Sleep?

In contrast to light sleep, which allows you to cough and sneeze, sneezes do not happen in deep or REM sleep. Even if it is so brief that you don't recall it, your body must be awake to cough or sneeze. Coughing or sneezing while you sleep can keep you from getting deeper, more restorative sleep, and often leaves you tired and groggy the next day.

Why Do We Sneeze When Looking at the Sun?

Up to one-third of people have a tendency to sneeze when looking at the sun or bright light. It’s referred to as photic sneeze reflex or solar sneeze reflex and is often an inherited trait. Although the underlying reasons for the condition are unknown, one theory is that there is a connection within the nervous system that causes the involuntary action to occur when the eyes are stimulated in a specific way.

Is Sneezing a Symptom of Covid?

The symptoms of COVID-19 have changed over time, and sneezing is now more commonly associated with the virus. Additionally, COVID-19 and other viruses, like the cold and flu, spread through sneezing. To prevent spreading infectious diseases, it's crucial to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze.

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