Your body makes you sneeze when it senses something in your nose that shouldn’t be there. This can include bacteria, dirt, dust, mold, pollen, or smoke. Your nose might feel ticklish or uncomfortable, and shortly after, you will sneeze.
You might be tempted to hold in a sneeze in a crowded place, when speaking to another person, or in other situations where having to sneeze seems ill-timed. But research suggests repressing a sneeze could be hazardous to your health, sometimes causing serious complications.
Besides that, everyone sneezes. It’s completely normal and acceptable — as long as you cover your mouth!
Sneezing is a powerful activity: A sneeze can propel droplets of mucus from your nose at a rate of up to 100 miles per hour!
Why are sneezes so powerful? It’s all about pressure. When you sneeze, your body produces pressure in your respiratory system. This includes your sinuses, nasal cavity, and down the throat into your lungs.
Holding in a sneeze greatly increases pressure inside the respiratory system to a level of about 5 to 24 times that caused by the sneeze itself. Experts say holding this additional pressure inside your body can cause potential injuries, which can be serious. Some of these injuries include:
When you hold in the high pressure that builds in your respiratory system before a sneeze, you send some air into your ears. This pressurized air runs into a tube in each of your ears that connects to the middle ear and eardrum, called the eustachian tube.
Experts say it’s possible for the pressure to cause your eardrum (or even both eardrums) to rupture and cause a loss of hearing. Most ruptured eardrums heal without treatment in a few weeks, though in some cases surgery is needed.
Middle ear infection
Sneezing helps clear your nose of any things that shouldn’t be there. That includes bacteria. Hypothetically, the redirection of air back into your ears from your nasal passages could carry bacteria or infected mucus to your middle ear, causing an infection.
These infections are often quite painful. Sometimes middle ear infections clear up without treatment, but in other cases antibiotics are needed.
Damaged blood vessels in the eyes, nose, or eardrums
Experts say, while rare, it’s possible to damage blood vessels in your eyes, nose, or eardrums when holding in a sneeze. The increased pressure caused by the sneeze being held in can cause blood vessels in the nasal passages to squeeze and burst.
Such an injury usually causes superficial damage to your appearance, such as reddening in your eyes or nose.
Your diaphragm is the muscular part of your chest above your abdomen. While these injuries are rare, doctors have observed cases of pressurized air becoming trapped in the diaphragm,
This is a life-threatening injury requiring immediate hospitalization. More commonly, you may feel pain in your chest after holding in a sneeze due to the extra pressurized air.
Doctors have found at least one case of a person rupturing the back of their throat by holding in a sneeze. The 34-year-old man who presented this injury was reported having an extreme amount of pain, and he was barely able to speak or swallow.
He said he felt a popping sensation in his neck, which began to swell, after he tried to hold in a sneeze by closing his mouth and pinching his nose at the same time. This is a serious injury requiring immediate medical attention.
Some people, often older adults, have reported breaking ribs as a result of sneezing. But holding in a sneeze can also cause break a rib, as it causes high-pressure air to be forced into your lungs with a lot of force.
Neither sneezing nor holding in a sneeze will cause your heart to stop. It may temporarily affect your heart rate, but should not cause your heart to stop.
While we haven’t come across reported deaths of people dying by holding in their sneezes, technically it’s not impossible to die from holding in a sneeze.
Some injuries from holding in a sneeze can be very serious, such as ruptured brain aneurysms, ruptured throat, and collapsed lungs. Ruptured brain aneurysms are deadly in about 40 percent of cases.
If you feel a sneeze coming on, it’s possible to stop it before it turns into a sneeze. A few ways to prevent sneezes include:
- treating your allergies
- protecting yourself from exposure to airborne irritants
- avoiding looking directly into lights
- avoiding overeating
- using a homeopathic nasal spray
- saying the word “pickles” (which some people say can distract you from sneezing!)
- blowing your nose
- tickling the roof of your mouth with your tongue for 5 to 10 seconds
Sneezing is caused by things that get into your nose and irritate it. Some people sneeze more than others because they’re more sensitive to airborne irritants.
You can best treat your sneezing without holding it in by avoiding the things that trigger you to sneeze. These triggers usually include things like dust, pollen, mold, and pet dander. Some people sneeze when they see bright lights.
Most of the time, holding in a sneeze won’t do much more than give you a headache or pop your eardrums. But in some cases, it can severely damage your body. Bottom line: Avoid the things that make you sneeze and just let your body sneeze when it needs to.