God bless you! Gesundheit!

The sneeze elicits more beneficent comments than any other, umm, public bodily function. I often wondered if the person saying the Gesundheit was unconsciously protecting themselves from inhaling some of the 40,000 droplets of mucus and saliva that are exhaled at around 100 miles per hour in a sneeze. These particles may contain a variety of germs, bacterial or viral, or just some sticky, nasty snot. While speaking the blessing, one must be exhaling for that moment, maybe preventing or delaying inhaling that floating cloud of respiratory flotsam and jetsam.

Why an article about sneezes? In my never-ending quest to inform, amuse, and illuminate those three people who have confessed to regularly reading this health and philosophy column, I share a recent personal health experience. One evening last week, I started sneezing loudly and frequently, disturbing even our house plants who started to shiver their leaves and timbers at my explosive outbursts. I was not sure the cause, but having played tennis outdoors a couple hours before, I attributed it to local airborne pollen.

While allergies are a major factor in producing sneezes, anything that stimulates the nasal mucous membranes may trigger a sneeze like upper respiratory infections, dust, animal dander or spicy foods. A full stomach or rapid changes in temperature can be culprits. A condition called psychogenic sneezing requires psychiatric treatment. Did you realize that we never sneeze while we are asleep as REM sleep puts our sneeze reflex to sleep as well? How about this one: ACHOO “Autosomal dominant Compulsive Helio-Ophthalmic Outbursts,” a genetically linked sneezing syndrome in people exposed to bright light. Another pearl, we can’t sneeze with our eyes open. Try it!

Sneezing is apparently different in other cultures, so an English achoo becomes a Polish apsik, Turkish hapshoo, French atchoum, Hebrew apchee, Japanese hakshon, Spanish atchu, etc.

Enjoy a one-minute science class on YouTube: https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=physiology+of+sneezing+video#id=4&vid=5fa071bec37c100182845eea0948a3c9&action=click.

Then there’s a pedantic 1919 article from the Journal of the American Medical Association:

“Sneezing may be defined as a spasmodic expiration preceded by one or more spasmodic inspirations. The expiration is momentarily opposed by the closure of the nasopharynx and a more or less complete closure of the mouth. With the onset of the expiration there is a rapid rise of intrapulmonic pressure which, when a certain value is attained, suddenly forces open the nasopharyngeal partition. In consequence, a blast of air is driven into and through the nasal chambers…The object of the sneezing spasm is the dislodgment of mucus or other fluid from the surface of the nasal mucous membrane.”

This dislodgment helps clear our airways, preventing infections from getting worse.

To close, a public health announcement: cover your sneeze.

Don’t sneeze into your hand, which can later spread germs, but cover the sneeze with a “chicken-wing” into the elbow, a hankie, or tissue keeping your companions healthier.

This is nothing to sneeze at since we could all use a bit more blessing.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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