It’s a little tickle that originates deep in the nasal cavity.  As soon as you feel it, it’s a race against time to get to the tissues quickly enough.  At best, you “win” and all is contained.  At worst, you have some cleaning to do and possibly an apology to issue.

What is a sneeze, exactly?  It’s an uncontrollable expulsion of air through the nose and mouth.  When the nasal mucosa is irritated by external factors (such as allergens or pepper), histamines are released.  Through a complicated neural network, the brain recognizes a foreign body has entered its airspace and must be expelled.  And thus, a sneeze occurs.  Your body produces about a liter of mucous per day (most of which is swallowed – yuck!).  This is mucous lubricates small hairs in the nose (called cilia).  The cilia behave as “bouncers” for the nose – allergens are caught in the cilia before making it any further into your body.

Because sneezes can transmit tiny droplets containing bacteria, it’s important to contain your sneezes to a tissue or if you must, an elbow.  Post sneeze, wash your hands to rid yourself of any remaining bacteria.  Keep in mind that bacteria from a sneeze can travel up to six feet – don’t let your nose “exhaust” wander!

Most sneezes are triggered by exposure to allergens like pet dander, dirt, mold or dust mites.  However, sneezing can also be caused by the common cold, dry air, spicy food, or even light.  Generally, if you remove the offending allergen, sneezing will stop.  Often, multiple sneezes will be required to clean out the nasal passages.

However, chronic allergy sufferers know that sneezing is year-round activity.  You can treat allergies with anti-histamines, nasal sprays and immunotherapy.  A board certified allergist can conduct specific allergen testing to determine your personal list of “sneeze triggers”.

Contrary to what the makers of cold medicine would have you believe, you cannot sneeze in your sleep.  While you are sleeping, certain neurotransmitters are also sleeping.  Neurotransmitters are responsible for signaling the brain that a sneeze is necessary.  Specific things can trigger a sneeze but you will wake up prior to actually sneezing.  Unfortunately, your nighttime sneeze will probably trigger your bed mate to wake up as well!

Although sneezes are a protective reflex, you can reduce the amount you sneeze with these simple steps:

  • Keep an air purifier in your home.
  • Do not allow pets in your bedroom.
  • Regularly change your air filters.
  • Use a neti pot or nasal irrigator to keep the nasal passages free of allergens and irritants.

If chronic sneezing becomes a problem, consider seeing an allergist to determine a course of action that is best for you.

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