It’s happened to everyone at some point: You’re enjoying a nice visit with good company when you suddenly feel a tickle in your nose. You don’t want to sneeze all over everyone, so you grab your nostrils and hold it in. But is holding in a sneeze dangerous?
Sneezing is as common as an itch, but it’s nowhere near as subtle. A sneeze can be so startling for those around you for several reasons. First, it can be sudden and startling. And also? It might raise alarm bells with others that germs might be on the loose!
So, you do everything in your power to not appear sick, whether you are or not, by holding in a sneeze. Let’s take a look at whether holding in that sneeze is harmful.
What Causes Sneezing?
Sneezing is a sudden, uncontrolled, reflexive response to something irritating the mucous membranes in your nose. Irritants could be pollutants (like smoke or perfume), allergens (dust mites, animal dander, or pollen), or because you have a cold.1
Sneezing is how your body removes any foreign particles in your nasal passages before they can reach your lungs. It might not seem like it if you’re having a sneezing attack, but sneezing is a good thing!
What Happens When You Sneeze
As it turns out, sneezing involves more parts of your body than you might realize. Here’s how it happens:
1. Those irritants in your nose stimulate the endings of the trigeminal nerve. This is what gives you that little itch in your nose that often precedes a sneeze.
2. This signal then travels to your brain, where it reaches a “critical threshold” and sets off the sneeze reflex.
3. The sneeze reflex sends an impulse to the nerves controlling your head and neck muscles, forcing a sudden intake of breath. This is the point where you know the sneeze is coming!
4.This build-up of pressure in your chest suddenly becomes a fast expulsion of air – and the irritants are (ideally) expelled, along with considerable droplets of mucus.2
A sneeze is great in theory, but when you’re sick and housing some nasty viruses, it’s also a great catalyst for the spread of disease. Those contaminated droplets of mucus can end up on other people, or on objects they may touch.
It’s a double-edged sword. You need that sneeze reflex to help blast out irritants and viruses, but the process of sneezing also helps spread germs. Interestingly, some researchers believe that sneezing might be a warning cue to alert others that you’re sick and to stay away. Food for thought!3
Why You Should Never Hold in a Sneeze
As you can probably attest to, a sneeze is sometimes epic in its speed and force – violent, even! This is because your body forces the air out of your nose and mouth at insane speeds.
How fast? Some researchers have clocked sneezes at up to 200 mph!4
But holding in a sneeze can be an injury waiting to happen. In one extreme case, a 34-year-old man seriously ruptured the back of his throat from pinching his nose during a sneeze. This is an extreme case, but it does occur.5
Doctors have also seen injuries to diaphragms, necks, ribs, blood vessels in the eyes, and eardrums from people holding in a sneeze. On average, injuries are rare, but with that amount of force behind a sneeze, why would you want to risk it? 6
Does Your Heart Stop When You Sneeze?
Now, you may have heard that your heart stops every time you sneeze. Rest assured: this is a complete myth.
When you sneeze, the pressure does momentarily decrease the blood flow back to your heart. As a result, your heart does change its regular beat for a moment to regulate itself. It doesn’t actually stop functioning.
Cardiologists do acknowledge that it’s “possible” that your heart could stop when you sneeze, but it’s rare. And if it did stop, it would be no cause for concern because it would only be momentarily.7
How to Stop Sneezing
Okay, so if holding in a sneeze is a bad idea, how can you stop sneezing? Again, it’s important to acknowledge that your body knows what it’s doing. Sneezing is a self-defense mechanism that really should not be interrupted – no matter how unpleasant you find it.
There are a couple of things that you can do to lessen the chances of a sneeze, or to reduce the spread of droplets that could spread germs when you sneeze.
1. When you’re sick, antihistamines can help control sneezing by stopping the production of histamine which tickles the nose. Certain steroidal nasal sprays also act in this way for those with ongoing allergies.8
2. You can sneeze into your hand without suppressing a sneeze. But if you do so without washing your hands immediately after, you can easily spread germs. Sneezing into your elbow is an easy way to fix this issue.
Researchers at MIT agree, suggesting that you should raise your elbow up, to help prevent the “turbulent buoyant cloud” of droplets that can spread far across a room.9
When you sneeze into your hands, germs are easily transmitted to things like doorknobs and other surfaces that you — and other people — touch.
So sneezing into the crook of your arm is the next best choice after a tissue.
3. Cold, dry air can stimulate the nerves inside your nose and trigger sneezing. During the cold winter months, consider using a humidifier to help put a little moisture back into the air in your home.10
Holding in a Sneeze: Just Don’t Do It!
Holding in a sneeze certainly feels like the polite thing to do, but it’s not a healthy thing to do. If you suffer from allergies, or you’re currently sick, carry tissues with you wherever you go. And if you find yourself without one, sneeze into the crook of your arm.
Remember: Sneezing is your body’s way of keeping you healthy by expelling irritants before they reach your lungs. So, the next time you catch yourself trying to hold in a sneeze, think again. Don’t fight your body!
How to Start a Meditation Habit (10 simple steps)
Why You Need Sleep (4 crucial health benefits)
Emotional Eating: How Foods Can Affect Your Emotions