The Anatomy of a Sneeze: “Waachoo” Might Not Know About Sneezing

 A fisheye image of a geeky woman about to sneeze.

Why do we sneeze?

There are many things that can cause you to sneeze. Sneezing can also be caused by spicy foods, dust, sickness, allergies, sunlight, medications, and even a full stomach. Research from the Library of Congress states that “some people sneeze when plucking their eyebrows because the nerve endings in the face are irritated and then fire an impulse that reaches the nasal nerve.2” That sounds dangerous.

Some causes have technical names:
Photic Sneezing: Sneezing caused by sunlight1.
Snatiation: Sneezing caused by a full stomach1.

You sneeze because your nerves tell your brain that there is something in your nose that shouldn’t be there.  Bacteria, dirt, dust, and other particles find their way into your nose. For the most part, these particles are trapped in mucus. Mucus – the slimy substance inside your nose – is produced in the mucous membrane. On average, a human body will produce over 34 ounces of mucus each day.

When the mucous membrane that lines the inside of your nose and/or throat becomes irritated, the nerve endings in your nose send a message through the “sneeze center” in your brain stem.

The sneeze center sends messages to your mouth, eyes, lungs, nose, diaphragm, chest muscles – and you sneeze.

There are cases where people lose the ability to complete a reflex sneeze. This is called lateral medullary syndrome4.

How fast is a sneeze?

The speed of a sneeze can reach up to 100 miles per hour. With sneezes travelling that fast and a distance of several feet, you’ll want to do what you can to keep your sneezes to yourself. Flu.gov combined with Sesame Street to create a short video that shows the correct way to sneeze:

Sneezing may not be a blast for everyone, but at least you haven’t sneezed once every day for 978 days straight like Donna Griffiths. At the beginning of her record-setting sneezing episode, she sneezed once every minute2.

Can you stop a sneeze once it starts?

No. Sneezes are an automatic reflex that can’t be stopped once sneezing starts2.

Do Animals Sneeze?

Yes. It can be really cute – unless you’re standing right next to them. Here’s a compilation of sneezing animals:

Not all animals sneeze. For example, “dolphins do not involuntarily sneeze the way land mammals do. Instead dolphins are able to voluntarily cough and exhale oxygen at a very fast pace which allows them to clear their air passage and lungs of debris, germs and other irritants that can cause them respiratory or breathing issues.”3

A Slow-Motion Sneeze

We’ll leave you with one last video. You can see a sneeze in slow motion here:

 


 

Resources:

1: http://www.livescience.com/44362-why-do-we-sneeze.html
2: http://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/mysteries/sneeze.html
3: http://www.whalefacts.org/do-dolphins-sneeze/
http://www.webmd.com/allergies/features/11-surprising-sneezing-facts
http://www.flu.gov/video/2009/10/elmo-sneeze-the-right-way.html

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