Culture

3 Things You Need to Know about Sneezing

A photograph of the author, Molly Mitchell.

By Molly Mitchell

September 10, 2019

3 Things You Need to Know about Sneezing

You know that feeling when a demon comes flying out of your nose at high velocity? No? Well, that’s what folks used to think that’s what happened when you sneezed. While the demon part is probably only true in a figurative sense, sneezing is easily one of our weirdest and most oddly satisfying bodily functions. And they do expel harmful germs out of your body and potentially spreads them to other people.

With cold season coming up, we’re about to see an uptick in sneezing. Here are a few tips on what to do when you sneeze, how to respond to other people sneezing and what sneezes are even for.  

Know Your Sneeze

A public health campaign poster from England during Word War II that says
A public health campaign poster from England during World War II.

Sneezing is an involuntary response in which our bodies inhale sharply and expel air and other gross particles out of our mouth and nose at high speeds. Just how fast sneezes go is up in the air – traditional wisdom says it’s around 100 mph, while some studies have shown it’s more like 10 mph. One MIT study found that sneeze particles can travel up to a shocking 200 feet ­– though most of them fall within 3 to 6 feet away (still somewhat alarming).

Some say that the origin of the widespread “God bless you” response originated in the days of the plague in Europe, and people then making the connection between sneezing and illness. On the other hand, ancient Greeks saw sneezing as a sign of good health, which make sense as the origin of the response, “Health!” 

Either way, now we know the purpose of the sneeze is to try to cleanse the nasal cavity of potentially harmful stuff that’s gotten in there. Sometimes it can be triggered by irritants, bright lights, infections and other stimuli. Sometimes you can stop it by pinching the bridge of your nose, but most of the time the sneeze is inevitable once it gets started. It’s good to learn to love the sneeze, just remember sharing is not caring in the case of sneezes.

Bless the Sneeze of your Neighbor

The painting Christ Blessing ('The Saviour of the World')The half length figure of Christ looking directly out at us with his right hand raised in blessing.
Christ Blessing ('The Saviour of the World'). Many religions, not just Christian, ask for God's blessing after sneezes.

Sneezing is catching… both in the viral sense and in that it has been catching the imagination of people around the globe for thousands of years. While we don’t usually comment on coughs, burps and the like, sneezing requires a response in most cultures, usually having something to do with wishing the sneezer health or blessings.

There are lots of variations of sneeze responses depending on what country or region you’re in, and they often reveal fascinating facts about history and culture.

  • In the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, “God bless you” or just “bless you” is standard.
  • In much of Latin America, there is a sequence of responses based on how many times you sneeze: First sneeze: “Salud!” (health). Second sneeze: “Dinero!” (money).  Third sneeze: “Amor!” (love).
  • Francophile African countries inherited the French response, “To your wishes!,” while Anglophile African countries picked up “Bless you.” Majority Islam countries tend to respond with “Praise!” and many other African countries use some variation of “health!” 
  • Many Asian countries don’t respond to sneezes at all, with a few exceptions. In Vietnam, if a child sneezes one might say “rice with salt.”
  • European responses are usually some version of “bless you” or “health.” If you’re a little old-fashioned and romantic, France is the place for you. Their three responses to consecutive sneezes: “To your wishes,” “To your loves,” and finally, “May they last forever.”

Sneeze Like a Vampire

The Count from Sesame Street covers his mouth with his cape.
Zero! The number of germs escaping The Count's elbow!

When you feel a sneeze coming on and you can’t stop it, channel your inner Dracula and draw that imaginary cloak across your face to sneeze into the crook of your arm. This will stop germs from spreading and make other people around you safer. Sneezing into your hands is better than nothing, but it’s pretty gross and still spreads germs through touch.

Bonus: Don’t forget to get your flu shot to protect yourself and others from rogue sneezes.

The more you look into sneezing, the more interesting it gets. If you want to learn more, check out the informative and funny sneezing episode of Sawbones, a podcast about medicine and medical history.