What is a Sneeze? Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, Prevention

Ah-choo! When you feel a sneeze coming on, there’s not much you can do to stop it—especially if you’re suffering from a cold or seasonal allergies. And you can’t control how loud you sneeze, try as you might. This means that your sneezing can be an earth-shattering sound to someone who is close enough to hear you sneeze. According to experts, the loudness of a person’s sneeze depends on their lung capacity, size, and how long they hold their breath for.1 The only thing you can do with sneezing, especially due to cold or flu, is treat the symptoms with over-the-counter medicines like NyQuil SEVERE.

What is a Sneeze?

Have you ever wondered what a sneeze is exactly? A sneeze is a sudden burst of air expelled from the lungs through the nose and mouth.

It’s the result of the inflammation of the trigeminal nerve in the nose. This nerve is linked to the “sneeze center” of the brainstem and sends signals that prompt a person to sneeze. It usually occurs when something like dust or pollen irritates the mucus membranes of the nose and throat. As a reflex, your body sneezes in order to get rid of whatever is causing the irritation.

The process of sneezing typically begins when your immune system releases chemicals such as histamine or leukotrienes due to the presence of allergens or to fight infections from foreign pathogens like the common cold and flu viruses.2 These chemicals bind to receptors on the trigeminal nerve and cause the “allergic reaction” symptom of sneezing.

What Causes Sneezing?

Sneezing can be an early symptom of a cold or allergy. Sneezing spreads viruses like a cold or flu by creating aerosol droplets containing the viruses that caused the infection, which may then be inhaled by healthy individuals.

Sneezing happens when the mucous membranes in your nose or throat are irritated.3

Several factors can cause your mucous membranes in your nose and throat to be irritated. These include3:

  • Allergy to pollen (hay fever), mold, dander, and dust
  • A virus, like the common cold or flu
  • Triggers such as dust, air pollution, dry air, spicy foods, and powders

A single sneeze can produce up to 40,000 droplets.

What happens if you sneeze with your eyes open?

There are many superstitions related to sneezing. One common belief is that if you sneeze with your eyes open, your eyeballs will come out of your head. But this simply isn’t true. Most people naturally close their eyes when they sneeze as a reflex.

If you keep your eyes open, your eyeballs will stay firmly planted in your head. Your eyes have muscles holding them in place (in other words, they’re not kept in your head by your eyelids). Though the blood pressure behind your eyes does slightly increase when you sneeze, it’s not enough to dislodge your eyeballs from your head. So while you should always cover your nose and mouth when sneezing to keep others from getting sick, you don’t need to worry about keeping your eyes shut.

How to Treat Sneezing Symptoms

Whether your sneezing is from a cold or flu virus or allergies, you can relieve symptoms by finding an over-the-counter medicine with an antihistamine. NyQuil, for example, has an antihistamine in them to relieve sneezing and runny nose symptoms associated with a cold or flu.

Many over-the-counter cold and flu products relieve multiple symptoms. Identify what symptoms you have other than sneezing, if any, to ensure you are picking a product that is the best fit for your situation.

Sneezing treatments when due to allergies

If your sneezing is due to allergies, you can do any of the following:

  • If the allergen is pollen, avoid areas with high pollen concentration, use air filters to reduce the pollen in the air indoors, and change your furnace filters frequently.
  • If the allergen is pet dander, remove pets from your home, keep them in a restricted location outside your home or living space, or frequently vacuum your home to avoid the buildup of fur as much as possible.
  • If the allergen is dust mites, regularly wash your sheets and towels in hot water to get rid of these organisms.

Sneezing treatments when due to the common cold and flu

If your sneezing is a symptom of the common cold or flu, your treatment should focus on relieving your symptoms. In addition to sneezing, you may experience a stuffy nose, sore throat, and fever. You can treat symptoms due to the common cold or flu with the following methods:

  • Get plenty of rest. Sleep gives your body the time it needs to heal and repair itself. Research shows that your body makes new immune system cells when you are asleep. Proteins produced by your immune system, known as cytokines, can help you fight the inflammation of your mucous membranes.5
  • Eat foods that support your immune system. Foods with vitamin C can help to support your immune system.6 Examples of foods that have vitamin C include fruits like oranges, lemons, strawberries, red peppers, mangoes, broccoli, and other fruits and vegetables.6
  • Take over-the-counter medications. OTC medications like NyQuil™ Cold & Flu or NyQuil™ SEVERE with VapoCOOL can relieve sneezing with an antihistamine. They also relieve common cold and flu symptoms like fever, minor aches and pains, and coughing.

How to Avoid Catching and Spreading Your Sneezing Symptoms

The best way to avoid sneezing symptoms for yourself is to understand what may cause you to sneeze. If it is due to allergies, when you identify your triggers, then you will know the specifics to avoid. For example, if sneezing usually happens when you’ve been exposed to an allergen you are sensitive to, plan to avoid areas with that allergen.

Also, maintain the proper hygiene to decrease chances of getting the common cold, which can also cause sneezing.8

To protect yourself from colds and the flu which can include sneezing symptoms, the Centers for Disease and Control (CDC) recommends that you:7

  • Wash your hands frequently with soap and water.
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Keep your distance from people who are sick.

To protect others around you from catching your cold or flu virus, the CDC suggests the following tips:7

  • Stay at home while you are sick and keep children home.
  • Don’t make close contact with other people – avoid hugging, kissing, or shaking hands.
  • Before you cough or sneeze, make sure that you are a safe distance away from people.
  • Cough and sneeze into a tissue and then throw it away, or cough and sneeze into your upper shirt sleeve while completely covering your mouth and nose.
  • Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces and objects, including toys and doorknobs.
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