- Health & Wellness
- Dr. Frischer
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What’s the best way to spread up to 100,000 germs 150 feet, at up to 100 miles an hour? Through “sternutation,” of course…more commonly known as sneezing.
You would not want to be the record holder for sneezing: 977 days in a row, producing over a million sneezes. Let’s take a look at this fascinating body function. What triggers it? What is its purpose?
A sneeze is above all a protective mechanism for the body. It actually serves as a part of the immune system, protecting the body by clearing the nose of bacteria, viruses, or any other nasal irritant. When something enters your nose, it sets off the “sneeze center” in the lower brain stem. This triggers a signal to tightly close the throat, eyes, and mouth. The chest muscles vigorously contract, and the throat muscles quickly relax.
The result is that air, along with saliva and mucus, is forced out of the mouth and nose, and…you have sneezed.
Considering the velocity and force of a sneeze, it’s not advisable to try to stop one in progress. If you must try to stop a sneeze before it begins, try breathing through your mouth and pinching the tip of your nose.
There are many triggers for a sneeze, including the obvious ones such as pepper, dust and pollen. Each of us tends to have our own particular triggers.These include pungent aromas, temperature fluctuations – and eyebrow plucking! A very common trigger that I experience is working out. When we hyperventilate due to over-exertion, the nose and mouth dry up. As a result, the nose compensates by starting to drip, triggering a sneeze.
Having sex can be a trigger. Researchers believe that the stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system fires off signals in some people to not only cause pleasure, but to sneeze. About one in three people sneeze when exposed to bright light, an inherited trait called photic sneezing. The syndrome, known as ACHOO (Autosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst syndrome), involves sneezing in rapid succession two or three times.
Another genetically linked sneezing disorder is called “Snatiation,” which causes multiple sneezes after a large meal. A rare syndrome of intractable “pseudosneezing” has been linked to psychological stress.
One thing we all have in common is that our eyes close during a sneeze. The scientific explanation is unclear. Some claim that we evolved this way to protect our eyes from whatever comes flying out of our nose and mouth. Others believe that it is simply a related muscle contraction. A commonly held myth holds that the eyelids close to keep our eyes from popping out of their sockets!
According to body language expert Patti Wood, how we sneeze says something about our general personality traits. In her research for a Benadryl-sponsored study, she divided “sneezers” into four categories:
The “Correct” carries tissue and is careful to cover the mouth when sneezing.This implies respect for others and a dignified disposition.
The “Supporter” tends to hold in sneezes rather than risk sneezing on someone, indicating a quiet and caring character.
The “Expressive” makes a big production out of sneezing and often sneezes multiple times at once, indicating a showy and dominating person.
The “Driver” sneezes loudly but quickly, indicating a direct and forward thinking person.
The literature is filled with superstition involving sneezing. In ancient Roman and Greek times, a sneeze to the right was a sign of luck and a sneeze to the left was ominous. A biblical interpretation is that a sneeze is the soul’s attempt to leave the body, because it is written that Adam came to life when God breathed into his nose.
Most cultures have an appropriate response after someone else sneezes. I grew up with “Bless you.” In Spanish it is “Salud”, and in German it is “Gesundheit.” The response typically translates as a wish for the sneezer’s good health; likely hearkening from the time of the Bubonic Plague, when one sneeze might signal a person’s assured demise.
Good health to you all, and bless you!
Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.
Published: September 9, 2010 – Volume 9 – Issue 21