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The Ecstasy of Sneezing

By Kasey Van Nostrand


Published: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sneezing, also called “Sternutation” (which sounds much more pretentious), is connected to the autonomic nervous system, and occurs when the mucus membranes of a person’s nose or throat are irritated by foreign substances. Common irritants are: allergens, dust or pollen, viral infections, or drug withdrawal. Plucking one’s eyebrows may cause sneezing because it triggers a nerve impulse in the face. “Snatiation,” is when a person sneezes after a full meal. It is a genetic disorder, as is sneezing because of sudden exposure to bright light. The latter is a disorder called the Photic sneezing reflex. One out of every three people has this hereditary trait. The first mention of it is credited to Aristotle who said: “Why doth the heat of the sun provoke sneezing and not the heat of the fire?”

Another interesting fact about sneezing, as recorded by the BBC News, is that it can be caused by sexual arousal, thinking of sex, and having an orgasm. This is also genetic. When asked what his thoughts on sneezing were, Peter Van Dalen (a UNCG alumnus) said: “A Sneeze is the closest thing to orgasm you can experience without engaging in sexual activity. There is an unmatched Euphoria that you experience when pressure that has been building up in your head is released in one glorious, sometimes violent burst of germ expulsion.” So, it would appear that a sneeze is like an orgasm of the face?

In the Middle Ages, sneezing was thought to be a potentially fatal occurrence. People believed that the soul resided in one’s breath, such as in Genesis 2:7 where it says that God (in reference to Adam): “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” Since sneezing is such a violent exhalation of one’s breath, it was considered the moment when a person came closest to death. Also, it was thought that the heart momentarily stopped beating when the action of sneezing took place. From this viewpoint, any sneeze could potentially be a person’s last, so it became customary (at the insistence of Pope Gregory I during the Bubonic Plague) to say “bless you” or “God bless you” as a means of warding off death or perhaps evil spirits. Josh Lane (a UNCG grad student) has a much more modern approach to sneezing: “I think the sneeze is a powerful force that should only be used for good. Unless you make a funny noise when you sneeze, in which case you should do it often.”

Two myths about sneezing: 1. The heart momentarily stops beating when a person sneezes. FALSE.

Dr. Richard Conti, the former president of the American College of Cardiology, proposed that the changing pressure in a person’s chest due to sneezing, changes the blood flow. This may change the rhythm of the heartbeat, creating the sensation of the heart “skipping a beat,” but it doesn’t actually stop.

2. If you sneeze with your eyes open, your eyes will pop out of your head. FALSE.

The television show MythBusters did an episode on this very topic. A person’s eyelids do close reflexively when sneezing, and the eyes may bulge a little (which is freaky), but they will not pop out of their sockets.

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