Hold That Sneeze?
AT TIMES all of us desperately want to stifle a sneeze. Perhaps it is during our wedding ceremony, as we stand ready to take our vows. Or it may be during a meeting or another serious occasion, even a funeral.
Of course, there are many times when a hearty sneeze seems most enjoyable, and a feeling of relaxed well-being follows. But the problem often is how to handle an unwanted sneeze.
Not all sneezes are the same. Some people have what might be termed a happy-sounding, very loud sneeze that can be heard at quite a distance. Others have a more delicate sneeze. Then there is repetitive sneezing: three, four, five, or even more sneezes in a row. In very rare cases, individuals have developed constant sneezing every few seconds or minutes while awake, for hours, days, weeks, or even months.
What causes us to sneeze? Is there any sure method of stifling a sneeze? Are there dangers in forcibly stopping a sneeze once the cycle has begun? And can any steps be taken to ward off sneezing?
The Cause of Sneezing
It seems that everyone sneezes at times—old and young, adults and babies. Even animals are known to sneeze. In most cases the cause is a foreign object (such as dust or pollen) that irritates the nasal passages. But our emotions too can bring on a fit of sneezing. Some of us may even find that bright sunlight is enough to cause sneezing. This is because the eye nerves are closely connected with the nerve endings in the nose.
Sensitive nerve endings react to the presence of an irritating substance by sending a message to the brain. It then instructs the nose to provide a watery fluid to assist in the removal of the unwanted object. The brain also passes messages to the lungs so that a lungful of air is inhaled, then to the vocal cords to seal off the air passage and prevent the air from escaping. The muscles of the chest wall and abdomen are told to tighten, thus compressing the air in the lungs. Finally, the vocal cords are ordered to relax, and the compressed air is rapidly expelled, usually dislodging the unwanted irritant along with the watery fluid. All of this takes place without conscious effort and much more quickly than it takes to read about it.
In most cases, constant sneezing is a symptom of a common allergy called hay fever. Plant pollen provides the irritation, and although the name hay fever may suggest that hay or newly mowed grass is the culprit, this may not always be the case. Sufferers may be allergic to a number of different pollens, or perhaps just one. So it is easy to understand why hay-fever sufferers dread seasons when strong, dry winds blow for days. Once the nasal passages are irritated and continuous sneezing begins, the slightest dust particle that normally would not cause irritation seems to start the victim on another bout of sneezing.
Consideration for Others
When the nasal passages are congested because of a heavy head cold, sneezing can bring some relief to the sufferer. Breathing becomes easier when mucus is removed from the nose in this way. But when a sneeze is not covered up, how are people nearby affected?
Doctors do not yet claim to understand fully all the ways that a cold can be spread. However, one strong suggestion is that a person can catch a cold by breathing in germs that have been sprayed into the air by a sneeze. Especially is this possible in the close confines of a warm room, or a crowded train or bus where fresh air is at a minimum. Other diseases, including influenza, measles, mumps, pneumonia, tuberculosis, and whooping cough are believed to be spread by sneezing.
Some research on the expulsion rate of sneezing reveals that droplets of fluid containing germs are expelled from the nose and mouth at more than 100 miles [160 km] per hour and can adhere to surfaces nearly 12 feet [4 m] away. Other droplets float in the air for a while to be inhaled by innocent passersby.
Can a Sneeze Be Stifled?
Many methods have been tried with varying degrees of success. Some claim to have stopped or cut short the “explosion” of a sneeze by pressing a finger firmly on the upper lip just under the nose. Hard pressure there is said to block some of the nerves involved in the sneeze cycle or mechanism. Another way may be to blow your nose into a handkerchief just as you feel a sneeze coming on.
For prolonged sneezing or a chronic attack, inhalants sometimes give relief, even if the inhalant is just the steam from hot water. This could explain why many hay-fever sufferers get temporary relief while taking a hot shower or bath in a room filled with steam.
Various techniques and methods have been suggested over the years, some reasonable, others ludicrous. Anesthetic creams for the inside of the nose have been tried with some success. Others include sedatives, injections, drops, pills, potions, psychotherapy, cauterization of the nasal membranes, and smelling garlic or horseradish. The more ludicrous suggestions range from putting a clothespin on the nose to standing on one’s head, reciting the alphabet backward, or rubbing the face with lard.
A note of caution: It is not always a good idea to stifle or hold back a sneeze. Forcibly arresting a hearty sneeze has been known to cause nosebleeds and may send the offending bacteria up into the sinuses, which could cause the infection to spread. On rare occasions, bones in and around the nose have been fractured, and a bone in the middle ear has been dislocated.
In many lands it is a custom for those standing nearby to say “bless you” to the person who sneezes. Where did such a custom originate?
According to the book How Did It Begin? by R. Brasch, some ancients believed that when a man sneezed, he was nearest to death. Brasch adds: “The fear was based on an erroneous but widely held notion. Man’s soul was considered to be the essence of life. The fact that dead men never breathed led to the fallacious deduction that his soul must be breath. . . . It is thus not surprising that from the earliest days people learned to respond to a sneeze with apprehension and the fervent wish to the sneezer that God may help and bless him and preserve his life. Somehow in medieval times this early origin of the custom must have been forgotten because it was Pope Gregory the Great who was credited with having introduced the saying ‘God bless you,’ to anyone who sneezed.”
Please Remember Your Handkerchief
It may surprise you to learn that sneezing has been put to criminal use. Yes, lawbreakers have devised ways of using, or misusing, sneezing for evil ends. About a hundred years ago, certain thieves in England came to be called sneeze-lurkers. They would throw snuff into a stranger’s face. Then, while he was distracted and racked by a fit of violent sneezing, the thieves would rob him of his valuables.
Most of us will never have sneezing induced by a face full of snuff. But whether overtaken by a sudden sneeze or a prolonged sneezing attack, the thoughtful person will always use a handkerchief or strong tissue to cover his nose and mouth. Not only is this a display of good manners but it is also a sensible precaution. It helps to guard against spraying the air with germ-laden droplets just waiting to be inhaled by the next unsuspecting person to come along. Neighbor love would also dictate that we try to protect others from disease by doing everything we can to limit the spread of germs.
It may not be wise or possible to stifle a sneeze. But how much others will appreciate your consideration—and your use of a handkerchief—to hold that sneeze!