Body processes

Sneezing – function, task and diseases


Atchoo! Everyone knows it: a sudden expulsion of air. But what actually happens when you sneeze ? A sneeze is an involuntary and explosive expulsion of air through the nose – often through the mouth as well .

What is the sneeze?

A sneeze is an expulsion of air through the nose and mouth. It is triggered by a sneeze stimulus. By sneezing, both the nasal secretion and dust or other foreign bodies – for example pepper as a sneeze stimulus – are thrown out of the nose.

There are many possible causes for sneezing: Irritation of the nasal mucosa is just as conceivable as very bright light, an allergy or sexual arousal .

Sick people in particular should try not to sneeze near other people, because sneezing can transmit bacteria and pathogens through droplet infection .

The sneeze itself takes place in three phases. First, air is inhaled. After that, after the breath has been held briefly, the expiratory muscles of the abdomen and chest suddenly contract. At that moment, the air is expelled through the nose and mouth again – and with astonishing speed: sneezing speeds of over 160 to 180 km/h have been measured.

function & task

Sneezing is primarily a protective reflex of one’s own body, which is used to remove various foreign objects from the nose. It doesn’t matter what the foreign body is: dust, bacteria, viruses , pollen, insects or microorganisms. Your own nasal secretions can also be responsible for a sneeze. Anything that irritates the nasal mucosa in any way can trigger a sneeze reflex. 

Typically, people sneeze mostly in autumn and winter, often the sneezing serves as a warning for a classic cold . However, you don’t have to be or become sick to sneeze.

Another classic example of a sneeze reflex is allergies. Pollen or animal hair, for example, irritate the mucous membrane and an inflammatory reaction occurs. When you sneeze, all foreign objects are thrown out and the airways are freed.

However, some people also have to sneeze when they pluck their eyebrows, for example. This is due to the so-called triplet nerve ( nervus trigeminus ). It is the fifth cranial nerve and is instrumental in sneezing. It is widely branched and, for example, also transmits stimuli and pain to the brain . Plucking hair, in this case the eyebrows, can irritate this nerve in such a way that you have to sneeze, even though there is no stimulus on the nasal mucosa – the nerve is effectively fooled.

Sneezing is therefore a self-cleansing function of the body, and it is also harmless for healthy people. You should also not suppress the sneeze: because of the pressure, there is a risk of damaging the middle ear or the eardrum . In addition, suppression can also get bacteria into the paranasal sinuses . Painful inflammation can be the result of suppressed sneezing.

Diseases & Ailments

There are a surprising number of horror stories about the phenomenon of sneezing. One rumor that lingers in people’s minds is that bodily functions supposedly stop during sneezing. Also, that your eyes will pop out of your sockets if you don’t close them when you sneeze is just a myth. 

Although sneezing can throw your heart and circulation out of balance for a brief moment, your heart rate and blood pressure usually return to normal immediately after you sneeze. In rare cases, sneezing can also cause fainting – a doctor should always be consulted in this case.

What is certain, however, is that sneezing can transmit bacteria and other pathogens via droplet infection. In addition to coughing , sneezing is one of the main sources of infection with colds or flu – like infections. It is not for nothing that after a sneeze the person concerned is wished “health”.

Treatment for sneezing depends on what’s causing it: an allergy or a cold. When you have a cold, sneezing is just a symptom that occurs along with other symptoms such as a cough, runny nose or sore throat . In this case, the whole cold must be treated.

If the sneezing is caused by an allergy, such as hay fever or a pollen allergy, the person concerned must either avoid the allergen or take an antihistamine to stop the sneezing. In the case of severe allergies, hyposensitization can also be carried out. In this treatment, the patient receives minimal doses of the allergy-triggering substance injected under the skin at regular intervals. After the treatment is completed, the body no longer reacts or reduces to it with allergic redactions – such as sneezing.

However, the sneeze reflex can also be outwitted if it really has to be. It helps, for example, if you press your tongue firmly against your palate . Another option is to place two fingers on the bridge of your nose and gently squeeze. However, both methods only work if you react to the first warning signal, the tingling in your nose. This means that sneezing can easily be suppressed.

Lisa Newlon
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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.