biology zoology blog benno meyer rochow sneeze

The Science behind Sneezing

Have your handkerchief handy

Have you noticed that most of the words related to the “nose” start with the letters ‘n’ and ‘sn’? Apart from nose, nares, nostril, and nasal you’d find snot, snort, sniff, snuff, snore, snooze, snub-nosed and, of course, sneeze. The most common reason advanced for why people (and other animals) sneeze is that the act of sneezing removes an irritant or obstruction in the nasal passage. Suffering from hayfever (my children used to have fun chasing me around in the garden with flowers in their hands) I once counted that I was sneezing forty times in a row  – and that was not at all because of an obstruction in my nasal passages (or looking into the sun, which is said to trigger sneezing in some people). So, what goes on?

The allergic reaction to pollen like the one that made me sneeze is probably one of the commonest reasons of sneezing in humans. But it’s complicated, for it involves an oversensitivity reaction in which substance P (cf., my earlier blog) is increased in the nasal epithelium together with other neuropeptides like, for example, calcitonin (cf. also old blog). These and the release of antibodies and histamine by the body’s immune system to the perceived threat posed by the inhaled pollen, lead to the hypersensitivity reactions (e.g. nose and eye itch). All these in conjunction with neurotrophic factors stemming from the allergy, target neuronal fibres like chemo- and pain receptors and those sensing itch, which then send the information to the trigeminal ganglion. The trigeminal nerve that serves also the cheek and orbital region of the face then instructs the sneezing centre in the brain’s medulla to take action.

Action means that effector neurons should become active. Those involved with breathing make sure that deep inspirations occur prior to the sneeze and that the eyes and the glottis close, before through an increase of the pressure in the lungs the glottis suddenly opens and releases in an explosive action air and fluid droplets through mouth and nose. The pressures involved in a sneeze can be 176 mm Hg, which would be one tenth of the pressure of a tyre of a small car or one third of the pressure penguins generate to poop. During a sneeze thousands of tiny droplets of liquid are released up to a metre and sounds accompanying a sneeze can vary from faint to deafening.

People who own a dog or a cat know that their pets may occasionally sneeze spontaneously or when you tickle their nose or when they smell irritating chemicals. The same holds true for humans and I for one avoid the perfume sections of the department store because the odours there could make me sneeze. The sneezing that accompanies a cold is usually related to a mucus build-up in the nasal passages that the sneeze tries to remove. The Galapagos iguana and some marine birds sneeze to remove salt crystals that have accumulated in the nasal passage and need to be flushed out.  All vertebrate animals with lungs and a connection between the nose and the pharynx (that excludes the fish) are said to have ‘choanae’ (= internal nares) and can sneeze. The nose of a fish consists of two nasal openings for the inflow and two for the outflow of the water. Located between in and outflow nares is the olfactory epithelium with its odour sensitive cells. Thus, looking at the head of a fish you will see 4 nasal openings and not just two as in all terrestrial vertebrates. Sneezing in fish is therefore not possible.

Antarctica is a good place for people with pollen allergies. Although you can get cold there, you are not likely to ‘catch a cold’ there, but on one of my trips to the icy continent my friend and colleague Taka Hariyama sneezed (dust does exist in some areas of Antarctica). He sneezed once and seemed happy, exclaiming joyfully “only once!”. I was puzzled why he stressed “only once”, until I learned that ‘sneezing once’ suggests to a Japanese that someone is saying good things about the ‘sneezer’, but that sneezing twice means the opposite. Yet, what it means to sneeze 40 times in a row I don’t want to know.

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2021.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

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