Why Do We Sneeze?

Published on: 13/08/2021

What happens in our body when we sneeze? And what are the sneezing etiquettes we should practice in these unprecedented times?

Everybody sneezes — whether you’re young or old, our bodies are programmed to perform these instinctive reflexes when our nostrils sense an irritation. While this may be the most basic explanation for why we sneeze, let’s take a closer look at this involuntary reaction that we all experience in varying frequencies.

Why Do We Sneeze?

In essence, sneezing is a natural way for your body to clean the nose. When foreign matter enters the nostrils — such as dirt, dust, pollen, or smoke, the nose can become irritated or tickled. When this occurs, your body does what it needs to do to cleanse your nose – it sneezes. As such, a sneeze is your body's first line of defense against invading bacteria and germs.

Studies have also shown that sneezing resets our nasal environment. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that that sneezing clears the cilia, the cells that line the tissue within the nose.

This is also the same reason why we sneeze when we are sick. When we are sick, our bodies try to expel things in the same way that they do when a foreign material enters the body. Allergies, the flu, and a typical cold can all result in a runny nose. When these are present, you may notice more frequent sneezing as the body strives to eliminate harmful fluids.

What Happens in a Sneeze Reflex?

Basically, it all starts when the delicate skin lining on your nose detects a foreign material. It sends an electronic signal to your brain, and this signal informs your brain that your nose needs to be cleared. The brain then signals to the body that it is time to sneeze, and the body responds by bracing itself for the impending contraction.

We all know these signs that we are about to sneeze, though we may not have previously thought much about them — our eyelids begin to squeeze shut, our tongue advances to the roof of our mouth, and our muscles brace for the sneeze. All of these reactions happen in just a matter of seconds.

When Is Sneezing a Cause for Concern?

Sneezing is seldom a symptom of a major health problem. However, those with certain diseases may develop additional complications if they sneeze excessively. People who have frequent nosebleeds, for example, may have more bleeding episodes after sneezing. Migraine sufferers may also endure more discomfort if they sneeze while suffering from these headaches.

Keep in mind also that not everyone reacts to external stimuli or allergies in the same way. We all have varying degrees of sensitivity in our nasal passageways, so there’s no need to compare the gravity of your sneezes to people around you.

Nonetheless, if you start sneezing frequently and cannot find an obvious cause, make an appointment with your doctor. While a few sneezes may not be cause for concern, it’s always best to discuss your new symptoms and check for an underlying issue than to suffer from regular sneezing.

Sneeze Etiquette in the New Normal

In this age of the pandemic, we all know that sneezing can cause illness and disease to spread. In order to do our part in the prevention of germ transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends covering our mouth and nose with a tissue each time we cough or sneeze. 

If you don't have a tissue handy, try to cough or sneeze into your elbow rather than your hands. Some medical experts also suggest sneezing into your upper sleeve instead of into your hands. Make sure to dispose of used tissues in the trash and wash your hands with soap and water.