In our country, there is a romantic notion that if you sneeze, someone is thinking of you!

There is also another universal custom of wishing you well after a sneeze - like ''God Bless'' in English, “Gesundheit” in German (wishing you 'good' health) or "Shatam Jeeva" in Sanskrit (meaning may you live to be a hundred years)! These relate to the quaint belief that during a sneeze, a devil could enter your body, and saying a blessing would prevent that from happening! It was also believed that your heart stops beating for a fraction during sneezing and that saying ''God bless you'' would kick-start your heart!

In India, in addition to the above, sneezing before an event is considered inauspicious and many times a task has been deferred or delayed because someone sneezed! Now that sneezing has already garnered enough attention to associate it with various myths and concepts, let us look at the actual reasons as to why you sneeze, what are its symptoms, tests for diagnosis, treatment, and management.

What is Sneezing?

Sneezing is a propulsive protective reflex that originates in your nasal lining and that throws out material from the nose that causes irritation. In simple words, sneezing (medically known as sternutation) is the act of expelling an uncontrollable burst of air, suddenly through your nose and mouth. Sneezing can occur for a variety of reasons, the most common one being an irritant present in the lining of your mucous membranes inside your nose or the throat. 

However, sometimes one can sneeze even in the absence of a noxious stimulus (substances that are painful and can potentially damage your tissues). In such cases, you might be suffering from a condition called Allergic Rhinitis in which common substances in the atmosphere (also known as allergens) cause sneezing and watery discharge from your nose.

Sneezing can be very bothersome and disturb your routine activities, but it usually does not indicate a serious problem. While it is normal to sneeze about 4 times a day; sneezing more than this can be indicative of allergic rhinitis.

Why Do You Sneeze?

When the inside of your nose gets a tickle due to an irritant (foreign substance like dust, dirt, pollen from flowering plants and weeds, pet dander, mould, pollutants, chemicals, germs like viruses and bacteria, etc.), a message is sent to a special part of your brain called the sneeze center. The sneeze center then makes all your muscles work together to produce a sneeze. 

The walls of your nasal passages are coated with mucous membranes, which contain tiny hair-like cells that are responsible for the movement of mucous (a normal, slippery, and stringy fluid in the nose) towards the throat.

When you come in contact with an irritant, the membranes lining your nasal passages become swollen, inflamed, and irritated. This results in sneezing or coughing, at times.

Apart from allergens, occupational exposure to chemical agents, some medications, hormonal (your body’s chemical messengers) disturbances and infections can also be responsible for sneezing. Spicy foods can sometimes cause sneezing. 

Symptoms of Sneezing

Depending upon your cause for sneezing, you may experience either of the following symptoms:

  • Burning, itchy, or watery eyes

  • Sore throat

  • Nasal congestion (blocked or stuffy nose) or runny nose

  • Cough

  • Fever

  • Chills

  • Postnasal drip (build-up of mucus that drains down from your nose into the throat)

How to Treat Sneezing Symptoms

Whether you're sneezing due to a cold or flu virus or allergies (an immune system response to a foreign substance that is not harmful), relieving your symptoms with over-the-counter (OTC) medicines is the best bet. Antihistamines are drugs that can provide relief from nasal congestion, and sneezing caused by pollen, dust mites, or animal allergy. Antihistamines might have certain side-effects. Consult your doctor before taking these medicines. 

Management and Prevention of Sneezing

If allergies are the cause of your sneezing, then following these steps can help you relieve  the symptoms or prevent them:

  • Avoid areas with high pollen concentration; use air filters or humidifiers to reduce the pollen inside your house, and change your furnace filters frequently.

  • If you are allergic to pet dander, remove or keep pets in a restricted location, preferably outside your home. Frequently vacuum your home (carpets and beddings) to avoid the buildup of pet fur and dander.

  • Regularly wash your sheets, towels, and clothes in hot water to get rid of all kinds of allergens, including viruses and bacteria.

If your sneezing is a symptom of the common cold or flu, you can manage your symptoms in the following ways:

  • Take plenty of rest. Sleep gives your body the time it needs to heal and repair itself. Know that your body makes new immune system cells when you are asleep which can help you fight the inflammation (irritation and swelling) of your mucous membranes.

  • Eat foods that are rich in vitamin C including oranges, lemons, strawberries, red peppers, mangoes, broccoli, and other fruits and vegetables, to support your immune system. 

  • Take over-the-counter medications to relieve common cold and flu symptoms like fever, minor aches and pains, and coughing.

Other precautionary measures to follow to avoid sneezing and to avoid the spread of infectious droplets to others around you:

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.

  • Keep distance from people who are down with a cold or flu.

  • Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.

  • Stay indoors as much as possible when you are sick.

  • Cover your nose and mouth with your hand, a tissue, a handkerchief, or your elbow, every time you sneeze. Throw the used tissue and wash your hands immediately.

  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, including toys and doorknobs to kill allergens, especially bacteria and viruses.

If your symptoms don’t get better with the above preventive tips and OTC medications, consult your physician/ENT specialist. Your doctor might prescribe some tests to identify if there is another underlying cause that is leading to frequent sneezing.


Disclaimer: This article is written by the Practitioner for informational and educational purposes only. The content presented on this page should not be considered as a substitute for medical expertise. Please "DO NOT SELF-MEDICATE" and seek professional help regarding any health conditions or concerns. Practo will not be responsible for any act or omission arising from the interpretation of the content present on this page.