The sneeze is an everyday annoyance of the human condition, as old as mankind and as common as nostrils. But only recently have scientists unlocked the secret of why we sneeze.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania used simulated sneezes and cells from the noses of lab mice to cut through the mucus-y mystery. The nose, their experiments determined, can become overwhelmed by its duty to trap “bad” particles in the air.
The sneeze acts as a “reboot” within the nasal passages, allowing that environment to reset itself so it can continue to function. The sneeze, then, is a sort of physiological way of pressing control-alt-delete.
The study was aimed at understanding sinusitis, also known as a good old sinus infection. In the end, researchers speculated that the sneezes of people with sinusitis fail to reboot the nasal passages.
But you don’t have to be sick to sneeze; after all, one in three people sneeze in bright sunlight — an inherited trait.
The sneeze’s ubiquitous nature might explain the bodily function’s place in history and culture. Ancient peoples believed that your soul escaped with a sneeze, and that a post-sneeze blessing could reverse the course. The Koran specifically urges followers to bless a sneezer. In more recent history, Thomas Edison’s first copyrighted motion picture, just five seconds long, depicts the sneeze of one of his lab employees.
And to address one of the most common medical myths surrounding this bodily function: No, your heart doesn’t stop beating during a sneeze — but stifling one can put dangerous pressure on your blood vessels.
Besides, why you should you hold back a sneeze? Sometimes, your nose just needs to reboot. Gesundheit.