Why Do We Sneeze?

Sneezing is impossible to avoid. Chances are you have sneezed sometime in the past week or two.

Sometimes we find ourselves feeling a sneeze coming on at the most inconvenient time. For example, you may need to sneeze in a quiet exam room, in the middle of a speech, or right after you took a big bite of your food. It’s coming and you know for a fact there is no way you can stop it. An embarrassing moment indeed, but remember that you are not alone. It is a completely natural thing and there are so many reasons for it.

Why do we sneeze? Let’s take a deep look into what the causes are and how to try to prevent or limit the spread of germs via sneezing. We also take a gander at how fast those sneezes travel and what is traveling along with it!

What’s in a Sneeze?

Exactly why do we sneeze? To figure out the answer, it is important to first know what a sneeze actually is.

Medically known as a sternutation, a sneeze is a sudden involuntary forceful expulsion of air from the body through your nose and/or mouth. A sneeze is triggered when the respiratory epithelium (which lines the nose) is disturbed or irritated, which in turn stimulates the endings of the fifth cranial nerve. This sends a message to your brain, triggering an extremely well-coordinated set of events over several parts of the body working together in perfect unison. Your chest, stomach and throat muscles, together with your diaphragm, vocal cords and even eyelids, work together to create the perfect sneeze.

The usual function of the sneeze is to expel any foreign and unwanted particles from your nasal cavity. Your body expels foreign objects for a very good reason. It is no wonder that a sneeze will carry with it different germs, bacteria, mucus, and various other particles. Studies have shown that a normal sneeze will expel approximately 40,000 different particles from your body.

What Can Cause a Sneeze?

There are several things that may trigger the sneeze reflex. The most common are the following:

  • Allergies

Especially during the changing of the seasons, allergies tend to flare up. There is usually more pollen in the air at these times, which triggers sneezing as the pollen enters the nasal cavity. Furthermore, due to the allergies, blockages of the naval cavity occur, and these may also cause sneezing.

  • Sinusitis / Chronic Sinusitis:

Sinusitis occurs when the cavities which surround the nasal passages become swollen and inflamed. In chronic sinusitis, this inflammation may endure for approximately 12 weeks and it is a product of blocked sinuses. This condition may also trigger several sneezes in a row.

  • Colds & Flu

Once again, blocked sinuses and nasal cavities result in a whole lot of sneezing.

  • Looking at the Sun or Bright Light

This does not happen to everyone, only approximately 1 in 4 people. But if you have found yourself sneezing when you look at a bright light or at the sun, it means you are a photic sneezer. This is a harmless genetic condition, which means you inherited photic sneezing from one or both of your parents.

  • Pepper

Accidentally spilled some pepper or opened the pot too quickly? If you breathed in pepper through your nose, there is an extremely good chance your body is going to want to expel that immediately.

  • Smoke or Dust

Dust particles, as well as smoke, may irritate your nostrils and trigger a sneeze.

How Fast Does a Sneeze Travel?

Ever noticed how some people just let loose when they sneeze, causing everyone around them to duck away?

It has been found that a sneeze can travel up to 200 feet at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour. Each sneeze contains thousands of germs and bacteria. As mentioned above, the body expels 40,000 particles with every sneeze.

It’s no wonder that people try so hard to get out of the way of the germ-infested storm. But what can we do to avoid the spread of these germs when sneezing?

Let’s Prevent the Spread

When we sneeze out all these germs, it doesn’t take too long for some of them to grab hold of the next person in line for a cold or the flu. It is therefore imperative that we take care of ourselves – both when we sneeze and when we get sneezed upon.

  1. Be sure to always carry a handkerchief or tissue with you to catch that sneeze before you can spread germs.
  2. Make sure that you throw away used tissues or sterilize your handkerchief often to avoid recontamination.
  3. Carry a hand sanitizer with you at all times and use it often. When you sneeze, you inevitably get some germs on your hands as you handle your tissue. Be sure to kill these microorganisms before they jump ship. It is also helpful to have the sanitizer around in case you get sneezed on.
  4. If you find a sneeze coming on with no tissue in sight, tuck your mouth and nose deep in the crevice of the inside of your arm, and catch it in there. It may seem a bit gross, but it is still much better than having mucus fly around freely not knowing where it might land.
  5. Limit the number of times you kiss others, especially during the winter season. We all have a certain number of germs setting up shop in our mouths, and if you kiss someone who just had a nice sneeze, those germs are right out there waiting to travel back with you.


When trying to figure out how we can prevent the spread of germs while sneezing, it is important to know what a sneeze is and to ask the important question: “Why do we sneeze?”

The rapid expulsion of air and foreign objects from our nose and mouth serves a major function in our health. It is how we quickly get rid of harmful elements, and it also clears the nasal passages. So don’t try to stop sneezes – just make sure to cover your mouth with a tissue every time.