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Why do we sneeze? – Naomi, 9 years old, San Francisco, California
Why do people sneeze with their eyes closed? Is there a way for people to sneeze with their eyes open? – Carlos, 11, Riverview, Florida
Why do adults make a loud noise when sneezing? Artie, 8, Brooklyn, New York
Aaaaa-choo! Whereas your first thought might be to say “Gesundheit!” The second question might be: “Where did that sneezing come from?”
Sneezing is a phenomenon that occurs in both humans and animals. It happens when your body forcibly expels air from your lungs through your nose and mouth.
Most of the time, sneezing occurs when something contagious, such as a virus or bacteria, or an irritant, such as an allergen or chemical, gets into your nose. Your body uses sneezing as a defense mechanism to clear your nose of mucus — also known as mucus — and prevent foreign bodies and particles from entering your airway.
But sneezing can also occur in response to unusual stimuli.
Chemicals such as piperine or capsaicin found in foods such as black pepper and cayenne pepper can irritate the nerve endings within the nasal mucous membranes and lead to sneezing.
Another type of sneezing is psychogenic, which means that it is caused by something mental rather than physical. Although not fully understood, researchers believe that it occurs when a strong emotion prompts your brain to send a chemical signal to your nose that makes you sneeze.
Finally, about one in four people suffer from something called photosneezia, or the photosynthetic sneeze reflex, in which light, especially sunlight, can lead to sneezing.
Can you sneeze without closing your eyes?
Despite the popular myth that sneezing with your eyes open will make them pop, it is actually possible to keep your eyes open when sneezing.
Closing your eyes while sneezing is an involuntary reflex. This means that your body is doing this without having to think about it consciously. Scientists believe that your body causes your eyes to close when you sneeze to reduce the possibility of germs entering them.
It is possible to combat this reaction by deliberately keeping your eyes open. But it may be best to keep it closed to avoid the germs you’ve expelled from getting into your eyes.
Why make noises when sneezing?
Some people experience very loud sneezing, while others experience more sensitive sneezing.
The noise you make when sneezing is the result of air coming out of your mouth or nose. In general, the more air you breathe in, the higher the sneezing rise. Like closing your eyes, inhaling before sneezing is largely a reflex but can also be controlled consciously.
Some people even catch a sneeze or “swallow” it, although health experts do not advise doing so due to the potential for infection. Some sneezes can be so strong that they expel mucus droplets at a force of up to 100 miles per hour!
What are the correct sneezing etiquette?
Although sneezing is sometimes just a reaction, or the result of an allergy or chemical irritation, sneezing can also be a symptom of an infectious disease or upper respiratory infection.
When you feel the urge to sneeze, the best practice is to sneeze into a tissue or into your sleeve to catch germs that may come out with the air you’ve expelled. If you sneeze with a tissue or touch your nose and mouth, good hand hygiene, such as washing with soap and water or using hand sanitizer, is especially important to help prevent the spread of germs.
Whether you sneeze with your eyes open or closed, loudly or quietly, covering your mouth and nose when sneezing and washing your hands for 20 seconds afterward can help protect others from getting sick.
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This article is republished from The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts. Written by: Meg Sorge, Purdue University.
Meg Sorg does not work for, consult, own or receive funding from any company or organization, and has not disclosed any relevant affiliations following her academic appointment.