Why Do We Sneeze?


Parents have been making a lot of noise recently regarding questions they have about sneezing and whether it’s good or bad that their child sneezes so much—so let me sound off on the topic of sneezing.

Why am I sneezing?

Sneezing is the body’s way to remove something that is irritating your child’s or your own nose. If something gets into your nose that it doesn’t like; a message goes to the brain to activate a series of muscles in the belly, the chest, and the head to create the action we call sneezing. These muscles working together result in that irritant flying out of your nose at up to 100 miles per hour and the spray from your sneeze can travel anywhere from 5 to 30 feet. It’s like a forceful reboot of your nose! What kinds of things can cause that reboot and make you sneeze? Most commonly it can be dust, cold air, pepper or even a cold or virus in your nose causing swelling and irritation as well.

Allergies can irritate the lining of the nose too, such as those to animal dander, or pollen. Sometimes bright light can stimulate the eyes and send a message to the brain to trigger a sneeze. One in four of us sneezes when looking directly at the sun.

Why do I always have the sensation to sneeze?

Then there’s that feeling that you are going to sneeze, but it never happens.  How does that work?     We’ re not sure but studies suggest if you look up at a bright light briefly, that may unstick the sneeze and help make it happen.  If you want to suppress a sneeze, you can try rubbing your nose, pressing on your upper lip or underneath your nose and that might do the trick. You can also try simply forcing a big deep breath out your nose and that may make the sensation you are going to sneeze go away.

Who do some people sneeze a lot?

Usually, that means your child is being exposed to a constant irritant or allergic trigger, so I recommend that you talk to your child’s health care professional to see if formal allergy testing is needed.  What can you do about it?  Well if an allergy is the cause, try to reduce the exposure—by using air filters to reduce pollen counts or washing linens in hot water to kill dust mites. If the sneezing is due to a virus, it will disappear when the viral illness that is causing it has resolved.

Hopefully, tips like these will be nothing to sneeze at when it comes to having a better understanding of why your child sneezes.

Lewis First, MD, is chief of Pediatrics at The University of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.  You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and WPTZ Channel 5, or visit the First with Kids video archives at www.UVMHealth.org/MedCenterFirstWithKids.


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