Why Do We Sneeze? Allergies and Other Triggers

Sneezing is an involuntary reflex that we are socially conditioned to suppress, which can be tricky when a sneeze takes you by surprise. Unlike most respiratory symptoms, sneezes seem to have a vast array of direct and indirect triggers. While we all sneeze when infected with the cold or flu, some of us also sneeze when stepping into the sunlight, while others sneeze when exposed to a particular allergen.

Here is a look at the science behind why we sneeze, and how to avoid potential triggers:

Why Do We Sneeze?

Sneezing is your body’s way of resetting its nasal environment, clearing your mucus membranes of foreign contaminants. When an irritant enters the nasal passages and infiltrates the mucus membranes, it triggers the release of histamine, which irritates the nerve cells in your nose. The brain senses this irritation, and initiates the sneeze reflex: the pharyngeal and tracheal muscles are activated, opening the oral and nasal cavities so that all foreign bodies can be expelled in a powerful release of air and mucus.

Scientists also speculate that sneezing may serve an additional purpose: to activate the hair-like cilia lining the nostrils, to fully expel the contaminated mucus from your sinuses so that they can reset. Researchers have found that the gust of air released when sneezing performs double duty in clearing mucus and kicking the cilia into “high gear” for a few minutes, thoroughly cleansing the nasal passages. In fact, studies comparing the nasal cells of healthy patients and sinusitis patients found that air pressure – a sort of “in vitro sneeze” – applied to healthy cells activated the cilia to work faster to clear out the mucus, whereas the cells of sinusitis patients showed little to no response.

Sneeze Triggers

Essentially, anything that irritates the sinuses can trigger the reflex to sneeze, as your body tries to rid itself of the offenders. Here is a list of the most common, though sometime surprising, sneeze triggers:

  • Respiratory illness, such as the cold and flu.
  • Allergens: Any allergens, such as pollen, dander, mold, or dust, can trigger a sneezing fit as your sinuses try to clear themselves of exposure.
  • Pollutants: Environmental pollutants such as smoke, smog, or chemical fumes are also known to irritate the sinuses and induce sneezing.
  • Nasal corticosteroid sprays: Sneezing is a common side effect of certain nasal medication sprays.
  • Pepper: Pepper contains the chemical piperine, which irritates the nerve endings within the mucus lining of the nose, resulting in a string of sneezes.
  • Sunlight: This one is strange, but fairly common. Called “photic sneezing,” up to 30% of adults reflexively sneeze when exposed to bright light. While the direct cause remains unknown, researchers speculate that it could be because the eyes and nose share the trigeminal nerve, or due to parasympathetic generalization.
  • Fullness: Some people sneeze once their brain senses that their stomachs are full, a phenomenon appropriately referred to as “snatiation”– a combination of the words “sneeze” and “satiation.”
  • Tweezing: Sometimes tweezing can trigger a sneeze in some patients, likely because the sensation hits a nerve connected to the sinuses.

Steps to Stop Sneezing

The key to stop sneezing lies in removing the airborne irritants from your environment before they reach your nasal passages. Take these steps to make your home a sneeze-free zone:

  • Install a HEPA filter in the home, and make sure to clean all the vents and furnaces.
  • Vacuum and mop often to clear the home of dust, dander, and other irritants.
  • Clean the windows and screens, and keep the windows closed when it is windy or when pollen counts are high.
  • Avoid burning candles in the home, or lighting the fireplace.
  • Refrain from using anything with harsh chemical fumes, such as cleaning agents, without proper ventilation. This includes the use of even perfumed scents like air fresheners
  • Keep your home dry with a dehumidifier to prevent the growth of mold.
  • If you have pets, wash them often with anti-dander shampoo.

To stem an impending sneeze, there is always the common method of pinching the nose and breathing through the mouth. However, doctors would never recommend doing this unless absolutely necessary, as suppressing a sneeze can have severe physical repercussions.

Schedule a Consultation with Dr. Shukla Today

If sneezing and other allergic symptoms are interfering with your daily life, schedule a consultation with Dr. Mayank Shukla today. With over 15 years of patient satisfaction to his name, Dr. Shukla and his caring staff at the Asthma Allergy Sleep Center of New York will have you breathing better in no time.

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