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Allergy Sufferers Should Bless Sneezing

Armen Hareyan's picture

Allergies and Sneezing

Some advice for allergy season? Don't stifle your sneeze.

Whether ladylike and whisper-silent or hurricane-force honking, sneezing makes spring miserable for allergy sufferers. But what we commonly think of as a nuisance has a powerful purpose.

"Sneezing can shoot tiny particles out of the nose at up to 100 miles per hour," said Dr. Cassius Bordelon an associate professor of cell biology who teaches anatomy at Baylor College of Medicine. "If we couldn't sneeze, we wouldn't be able to rid the body of substances that could harm it."

Sneezing begins when people inhale foreign substances such as smoke, pet dander, pollution and perfumes through the nostrils. These substances irritate the nasal passages and stimulate nerve endings, activating a reflex inside the brain that controls the muscles in the head and neck.

"The sensation can be compared to an itch inside the nose, and the only way to scratch it is to sneeze," Bordelon said.

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At the beginning stages of a sneeze, pressure builds up inside the chest. Sneezing occurs when this compressed air explodes out the respiratory tract and out the nose.

The person doing the sneezing, more often than the amount or kind of irritant, determines if the sneeze comes out as a gale-force windstorm or several small ach-oos, Bordelon said.

"The reasons behind the severity of the sneeze are usually more sociological than physical," he said. "Some people are just more comfortable letting it all out, while others try to be more discreet."

Whether loud or quiet, the same process that removes irritants from the body also spreads germs and viruses like the common cold to others. Time elapsed photos of people sneezing show countless droplets of moisture surrounding their heads. But while covering your nose when sneezing helps protect others from germs, stifling a sneeze out of politeness may do more harm than good. In rare cases, increased pressure from holding your nose and closing your mouth can blow out the eardrums.

"When you stifle a sneeze, you can prevent the clearance of the germs or irritants from your body and increase your needs to keep sneezing or develop an infection," said Dr. Donald Donovan, an associate professor of otorhinolaryngology at Baylor. "The best thing is to sneeze with your nose and mouth open into a tissue away from other people."

That same pressure activates a reflex in most people to close their eyes while they sneeze. Scientists speculate that the reflex evolved to help protect the eyes from the particles a sneeze expels, but not everyone has it.

"The old wives tale that if you sneeze with your eyes open, you will blow them out is absolutely untrue," Bordelon said.