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Why Do We Sneeze?

Everybody sneezes. You can try to hold it back, but a sneeze usually just can't be stopped. And that's a good thing, because it's actually one of the body's natural defenses, designed to help get rid of foreign invaders that sneak into your nose and threaten your lungs and other body parts. The medical term for sneezing is sternutation, a rather complex process that includes your brain, nerves, and muscles all over your body.

Your nose is lined with tiny hairs called cilia that catch foreign invaders, such as dust, pollen, dander, and other allergens flying around in the air. When these particles start tickling your nose, your brain is sent a message to get them out. Your brain triggers the sneeze response, and the force of the sneeze helps expel the offenders from the nose.

A sneeze seems fairly straightforward, but it’s the result of an impressive chain of events. Your abdominal muscles, chest muscles, and even eyelid muscles (think about how your eyes automatically close when you sneeze) are all in play, in concert with your lungs, which initiate the forceful air that is sent up through your windpipe, throat, and nasal passages.

Causes of sneezes

A number of factors and irritants can make you sneeze:

  • Smoke

  • Pollution

  • Mold

  • Mildew

  • Dust

  • Pepper

  • Cold air

  • Pollen

  • Strong fumes or odors

  • Animal dander

  • Allergies/allergic rhinitis

  • Nonallergic rhinitis

  • Swelling and irritation in the nasal passages, such as from an infection

  • Light, such as sunlight

Light triggers what is called photic sneezing, an automatic response by the body when exposed to light. Photic sneezing is caused by a genetic, inherited trait that occurs in about one in every three to four people.

Stopping the sneeze

Sneezing can often be accompanied by other symptoms like watery eyes and a runny nose. If all of these symptoms are making you miserable, you can take steps to help alleviate your sneezing:

  • Treat an infection. If you have a virus, you'll have to rely on home remedies to ease those sneezes. But if your doctor determines that you have a bacterial infection that will benefit from antibiotics, take them as directed.

  • Control allergies with medication. If you have hay fever or other allergies, medication can help control sneezing and other symptoms. Try an over-the-counter (OTC) allergy medication or talk with your doctor about prescription drugs if you don't get relief from the OTCs.

  • Limit exposure to outdoor allergens. When mold, pollen, pollution, and other allergen counts are high, try to stay indoors as much as possible. Keep windows closed and run your air conditioner at home and when you’re in the car.

  • Keep your house dust-free. Mold, dust, and dander can build up in your home and leave you sneezing constantly. Keep your home clean with frequent dusting, vacuuming, and mopping, and don't forget to wash all linens regularly in hot water to cut down on allergens.

  • Avoid strong smells. Being around cigarette smoke, heavy perfumes, or strong candles can trigger sneezing for those with non-allergic rhinitis. Avoid dousing yourself or your home with heavy fragrances, and try to steer clear of these heavy irritants when around others.

The occasional sneeze is no big deal–it’s simply your body's way of helping to take care of you. But if you suffer from persistent sneezing and other uncomfortable symptoms, take action to alleviate your discomfort and put a stop to the constant sneezing.

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