What Causes Sneezing?

Allergens, irritants, pathogens, and dry air are common triggers for sneezing.

It usually starts with a tickle, quickly building to an explosive blast from the mouth and nose. As it turns out, sneezing is your body's way of getting rid of visible or microscopic allergens, viruses, and irritants, Matthew Purkey, MD, an ear, nose, and throat specialist, told Health.

"When our upper airway, especially our nose, senses a foreign substance that is potentially harmful, we sneeze in response to expel the substance back out," said Dr. Purkey. In other words, sneezing is a protective mechanism. 

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Pexels / Mikael Blomkvist

What Happens When We Sneeze?

A sneeze starts when an irritant enters the nose, explained Dr. Purkey. The invader becomes entangled in nose hair, which stimulates nerve endings. Then, the nerves send a message to the medulla, which is part of the brain stem. The medulla controls essential involuntary functions like breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate.

Once the nerve signals reach the medulla, the brain initiates a physical response. You close your eyes, take a deep breath, relax the muscles in your throat, and then force air, saliva, and mucus out of your nose and mouth. All of those actions happen in only a few seconds.

All sneezes begin and end the same way, but everyone has their own signature sneeze. In fact, a person's sneeze is almost as unique as their voice. Differences in lung capacity and the unique structure of your nose, throat, and mouth affect how you sneeze, Jacob Hascalovici, MD, PhD, a clinical assistant professor in the department of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told Health.

Why Do We Sneeze?

Sneezes happen for many reasons, and not all of them make sense. When you feel a tickle in your nose, it's likely due to a foreign body entering your sinuses. 

Common triggers for sneezing include:

  • Environmental irritants: Smoke, perfumes, and air pollution
  • Allergies: Pet dander, pollen, mold, or dust mites
  • Infections: A common cold, COVID-19, and the flu
  • Dry air: Irritates the mucous membranes in the nose
  • Peppers: Contains a substance called piperine, which irritates the nasal passages

There are some peculiar triggers for sneezing, too. For example, some people sneeze after sex. Researchers do not know precisely why that happens. One theory is that the automatic nervous system controls involuntary reactions, such as sneezing and sexual arousal.

Likewise, in a rare phenomenon coined "snatiation,"—a mix of "sneeze" and "satiation"—some people sneeze after a large meal, Heather Moday, MD, an allergist and immunologist, told Health.  

People can sneeze when they suddenly expose themselves to bright light or look at the sun, known as photic sneeze reflex. Some evidence suggests that photic sneeze reflex is at least partially genetic..

Why Do We Close Our Eyes When We Sneeze?

Most people involuntarily close their eyes to shield themselves from irritants ejected via their nose and mouth, explained Dr. Purkey. Although possible to sneeze with your eyes open, you probably should not try it, advised Dr. Purkey.

Why Do We Sometimes Sneeze Many Times in a Row?

People often sneeze many times in a row if their first sneeze does not clear their nasal passages well enough, said Dr. Hascaolovici. Rest assured that a second or third sneeze is the body's way of ensuring any irritants safely expel from your nose.

Why Do Sneezes Feel Good?

You are not alone if you find sneezing pleasurable. Letting out a sneeze relieves the tickly feeling in the nose instantly. That relief is almost like scratching an itch.

To some degree, sneezing emulates an orgasmic experience, said Dr. Hascalovici. Both have a build-up of tension followed by a quick, intense release. The muscle contractions involved in sneezing may trigger a very marginal rush of endorphins, added Dr. Moday. Endorphins are the same feel-good chemicals that flood the brain during an orgasm.

Is It Bad To Hold in a Sneeze?

As tempting as it may be to hold in a sneeze—for example, if you are in the middle of a work presentation—experts agree it's best to let it happen.

Sneezing generates strong pressure. That pressure can rupture your eardrums or even blood vessels in your eyes and brain if you do not release it, said Dr. Purkey.

The irritant, allergen, or pathogen that would otherwise expel from your nasal passages may make its way to your ear. That raises the risk of an ear infection, added Dr. Purkey.

How To Stop Sneezing

Incessant sneezing can be pretty annoying. There is no surefire method to stop yourself from sneezing in a moment. Instead, one of the best courses of action is to find what triggers your sneezing. Then, you can treat the root cause. 

For example, treating incessant sneezing may include:

  • Seasonal allergies: Over-the-counter antihistamines may help if you suspect seasonal allergies are the culprit, advised Dr. Hascalovici. Depending on your allergy, you might take antihistamines before or during exposure to allergens.
  • Irritants: Try eliminating possible irritants and see if sneezing eases up if you notice that you sneeze when wearing perfume, exposing yourself to cigarette smoke, or eating specific foods.
  • Dry air: Lubricate your nasal passages with saline rinses or a portable humidifier if you sneeze when the air is dry, said Dr. Moday.

Consult a healthcare provider or an allergy specialist if you cannot figure out what triggers your sneezes.

Make sure that you practice good sneezing etiquette so you do not spread germs to people around you, said Dr. Hascalovici. Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue if possible, or direct your sneeze to the crook of your elbow.

A Quick Review

Sneezing is the body's way of getting rid of irritants inside the upper airway. Many factors, such as allergies, irritants, pathogens, and dry air, can trigger sneezing. Treatment depends on what causes your sneezing. Reach out to a healthcare provider if sneezing interferes with your daily life and home remedies are ineffective.

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7 Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  4. Mangot AG, Trivedi S, Pandey A, et al. Psychogenic sneezingJ Neurosci Rural Pract. 2015;6(2):282-283. doi:10.4103/0976-3147.153242

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