What Happens when You Swallow a Sneeze?
You’re in a meeting or riding the subway and you really need to sneeze, but you don’t want everyone to hear you – it’s embarrassing. So what do you do? You “swallow a sneeze” so it doesn’t make noise.
Sure, you know what we’re talking about: when you pinch your nose with your fingers and shut your mouth to keep any sound from coming out.
But did you know that this is a terrible practice for your health? In today’s article we’ll tell you why, and also why a true sneeze fulfills an important role without having any negative consequences for your body.
Why and how do we sneeze?
Sneezing is a defense mechanism that your body (more specifically, your respiratory system) deploys to expel air from the lungs through your nose or mouth. It’s a reflexive and convulsive act that happens when something irritates your airways.
It causes a very fast and strong pulse of air to exit from your lungs in a short period of time. Your abdominal muscles cause the diaphragm to suddenly rise, putting pressure on the lungs and opening your pharynx.
When that “shot” of air exits your body…it can reach up to 75 miles per hour! At the least it’s around 40 miles per hour.
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Another curious fact about sneezing is that when you expel that air you can’t keep your eyes open (pay attention next time and you’ll see what we mean).
This is another reflex to prevent you from damaging your eyes when the pressure in your sinuses increases, and also to keep any germs in your saliva from coming into contact with your mucus membranes and causing infection.
There are many different reasons why we sneeze, including:
- Colds and the flu (especially when you’re producing a lot of mucus)
- Allergic reactions (the body’s natural response to a particular substance)
- Contact with the sun
One of the most amazing facts about sneezes is that they almost never “operate alone.” What does that mean? Odds are when the first one appears, it will be followed by several more.
This can vary from person to person, but it’s normal to sneeze up to 10 times!
Multiple sneezes occur when not all of the air that built up in the lungs was released, or if whatever triggered your sneezing hasn’t gone away yet. This means that your respiratory system has failed to do its job, or didn’t work hard enough.
Then there are those people who think that if you sneeze three times in a row you’ll receive a gift, or that you should say something like “to your health,” each time someone have this violent expulsion of air.
Is it a bad idea to swallow a sneeze?
Holding back a sneeze is a common thing we do to keep from embarrassing ourselves by walking around and spreading saliva and germs everywhere. Maybe when you were little someone told you it was rude, or you just don’t like how it feels to sneeze.
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But studies have shown that preventing that force of air from being released can actually be harmful for your health.
For example, if you swallow a sneeze it can produce the exact opposite effect of what it’s supposed to do: irritants and particulates are directed inward, instead of outward. The force of air can harm the tissues inside your nose, causing damage to blood vessels and veins.
Pathogens and other germs can move to deeper regions of your nose, middle ear, sinuses, etc. and multiply, causing infections.
Meanwhile, when you suppress a sneeze it adds pressure to your respiratory system. The most common damage occurs when you have a ruptured vein that leads to a nosebleed, a bleeding eardrum, or eye problems.
This causes inflammation in your nasal passages and the eardrum, leading to headaches, ear infections, and even hearing impairment. Maybe you thought your ears were plugged or you just felt a little dizzy…but this is what happens when you swallow a sneeze.
What if the room is full of people? One of the main reasons why we try to swallow a sneeze is to avoid annoying or inconveniencing the people around us.
And yes, of course you don’t want to have an extremely loud sneeze with saliva and germs everywhere…but there is a way to moderate that and still allow yourself to sneeze normally. How? Just by covering your mouth with a tissue.
This lets air and microorganisms leave the body and also protects others by preventing the spread of disease and the possibility of infection.
Another widely used option (although it’s not 100% effective) is to sneeze into the corner of your elbow.
Once you’ve used your tissue and the sneezing episode is over (for now, anyway), it’s important that you wash your hands to remove any bacteria and viruses that remain.
Be sure to use hot water and soap for at least 20 seconds, particularly before eating.
This helps avoid the spread of various diseases, including:
- The flu
- The common cold
- Hepatitis A
- Infectious diarrhea