Sneezing is one of those bodily functions that happens so often we rarely give it much thought. But when one achoo turns into a full-on sneeze attack, you might start to wonder what's going on (and whether there's anything you can do to stop it).
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Sneezes — those sudden, forceful bursts of air expelled through your nose and mouth — are the body's automatic method for getting irritants like dust, pollen, or germs out of the nose or throat.
"Sneezing is a coordinated, protective respiratory reflex that occurs due to stimulation of the upper respiratory tract, particularly the nasal cavity," explains Kishor Gangani, MD, MPH, an internist with Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital.
When certain nerves in the nose are stimulated by an irritant, a message is sent to the brain to get the gunk out ASAP. Signals go out to muscles in the chest, abdomen, vocal cords and the back of the throat, telling them to work together to expel the irritants from your airways, according to Nemours.
This response is incredibly powerful. Sneezes can travel up to 100 miles per hour and send more than 10,000 mucus droplets out into the air, per the American Lung Association. (Which is why they're so great at spreading germs — and why it's so important to cover them!)
With that kind of capacity, one sneeze is often enough to clear out the offending culprit. But not always.
What Causes Sneezing Fits?
Some people sneeze just once or twice, while others seem to go gesundheit many times in a row. And in fact, sneezing a little or a lot are both normal. "If the first sneeze isn't powerful enough to get rid of the irritants, the body will make you sneeze multiple times in a row until you expel the irritants out," Dr. Gangani explains.
1. It's Just the Way You Sneeze
If you're someone who seems to deal with sneeze attacks habitually, your sneeze reflex may just be a little less powerful, says Dr. Gangani. If you tend to sneeze in threes, for example, your body may need those three tries to get the irritant fully out of your nose.
Multiple sneezes themselves aren't generally cause for concern, but if it seems like you're sneezing nonstop, it might be worth looking into a possible underlying cause, such as allergies.
2. It's Allergies
Often the culprit is an allergen that isn't well managed. "If you're getting exposed to an allergen over and over again, you'll be prone to sneeze attacks more often, as you may not be able to clear your nasal passages in one go," Dr. Gangani says.
Also, here's one to file under weird-but-true facts: Some people are photic sneezers, meaning they sneeze or experience a prickling sensation in the nose in response to sudden bright light (like sunshine). While the condition itself isn't harmful, photic sneezing can post potential risks — like a sneeze attack that occurs while driving out of a dark tunnel on a bright day, notes Medical Genetics Summaries. Wearing sunglasses or a hat is usually enough to keep sneezing in check.
Can You Stop Sneeze Attacks?
Never-ending sneezes can be annoying and disruptive, especially in social settings. Plus, the more you sneeze, the more likely you are to send your germs flying toward others. So is there anything you can do to stop them?
Don't Hold in a Sneeze
Some people find they can curb a sneeze by pinching their nose. But trying to stop it isn't a good idea.
"You should let your sneezes happen naturally," Dr. Gangani advises. "By holding it in, it could lead to increased pressure in your nasal cavity, lungs and airways that could damage blood vessels in your eyes, nose or eardrums."
Plus? If your body is trying to get rid of a germ, holding it in increases the chance that the bacteria or virus ends up making you sick, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
People with certain health conditions could experience more serious side effects from stopping a sneeze. Those with high blood pressure could also experience nosebleeds, and those with emphysema may even develop pneumothorax, a life-threatening condition where air gets trapped between the layers of the lungs, Dr. Gangani notes.
That said, you may be able to slash your sneeze attacks by addressing the underlying cause:
1. Avoid Triggers
If you notice certain odors, foods or dry air seem to start your sneezing, avoiding those triggers can help, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
2. Manage Allergies
If you suspect that your sneezes are allergy-related, make an appointment with an allergist. They can help you pinpoint your irritants and recommend medications and lifestyle changes to get your symptoms under control.
The Best Way to Sneeze
Whether you're sneezing once, twice or 10 times in a row, it's worth doing your part to keep your sneeze droplets from reaching others.
"Practicing good sneezing etiquette is very important, as it will help cut down on the spread of germs," says Dr. Gangani. "Sneeze droplets can linger in the air and on surfaces and infect others."
The best method is to sneeze into a tissue while fully covering your mouth and nose, recommends the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Afterward, toss the tissue in the trash and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water. "Or rub your hands with an alcohol-based sanitizer for at least 20 seconds," Dr. Gangani says.
If you don't have a tissue handy, sneeze into your elbow rather than your hands.
- Nemours Foundation: "What Makes Me Sneeze?"
- American Lung Association: "How Fast Is a Sneeze Versus a Cough? Cover Your Mouth Either Way!"
- Medical Genetics Summaries: "ACHOO Syndrome"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Trying to Hold That Sneeze In? Better Not if You Know What’s Good for You"
- National Institutes of Health: "Sneezing"
- Centers for Disease Control: "Coughing and Sneezing"