Why do we sneeze?

Have you ever wondered what exactly a sneeze is, and why we do it? Some of the reasons are more unusual (and funny) than you might expect.

Sneezing, which is also known as ‘sternutation’ (you’re welcome, scrabble players), is a reflex action that removes irritants, such as dust, pollen or germs. When your brain detects these irritants, it sends a signal that causes you to take a deep breath, which is held in your lungs as pressure builds and your chest muscles tighten. Your tongue then presses against the roof of your mouth so that the sneeze is forced through the nose, removing the irritants. Many people sneeze in doubles or triples as it takes them a few sneezes to completely remove the irritants.

However it’s not only irritants which can cause a sneeze; a study performed by the University of Pennsylvania recently delved deeper into the sneeze. They discovered that sneezing also occurs as a sort of reboot of our nasal environment. Much like a computer, our noses benefit from a reboot every now and again.

Another cause for sneezing is bright light. About one in four people sneeze in the presence of bright light; this is known as photic sneeze reflex. Scientists aren’t certain of the cause, but the leading theory is that messages sent by the brain that are meant to tell the pupils to shrink (due to the bright light) cross over with other neural pathways and accidentally trigger a sneeze.   

Bright light isn’t the strangest thing to cause sneezes; for some people all it takes is a sexual thought to cause a sneezing fit. First observed in 1897, sexually-induced sneezing remains largely undocumented. This is due in part to the embarrassment of the sufferers, who often seek help online anonymously, rather than visiting a doctor. Sexually-induced sneezing is also believed to be caused by crossing over of neural pathways.

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Written by ryanbo


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