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10 myths and facts about sneezing

Everyone sneezes. Some people sneeze more often, and louder than others. Some people sneeze once, others a number of times in quick succession. But what makes us sneeze?

1. Why do we sneeze?

Sneezing is a protective reflex over which you have little, and mostly no, control. It helps keep your body safe by clearing your nose of anything unwanted, including bacteria and viruses.

2. What happens physically when we sneeze?

When something untoward, maybe pollen, dust or a virus, irritates the lining of your nose the nerve endings inside rapidly send signals to your brain to close your throat, eyes and mouth. Next, your chest muscles contract, compressing your lungs and forcing air upwards. As a result air - along with saliva and mucus - is forced out of your nose and you have a sneeze.

3. How far do sneezes travel?

There's a reason 'sneezes spread diseases' and it's the force with which they leave your mouth and the distance they travel.

Research carried out in the US by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) using high frame slow motion cameras showed a sneeze, not stopped by a hankie, and droplets of mucus travelling up to 8 metres and staying suspended for up to 10 minutes.

4. What's the record for the most sneezes?

You may be irritated and find yourself apologising if something gets up your nose and you have a couple of minutes of sneezing. Spare a thought for Donna Griffiths from Worcestershire. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, she started sneezing on 13 January 1981 and didn't stop until 16 September 1983 - 977 days later.

5. Is it true your eyes will pop out if you don't close them when you sneeze?

It's a myth but one that is often repeated, especially in the playground.

Sneezes may be extremely forceful but there is no muscle directly behind the eyes to contract and push them out. Some people do sneeze with their eyes open and after the sneeze, their eyes are right where they were beforehand.

While we're debunking sneezing myths – when you sneeze your heart doesn't stop beating. There might be a slight change in rate, but it does not stop.

6. Sunshine can make you sneeze

This is true. There's even a name for it, the 'photic sneeze reflex’. It's estimated to affect between 18 to 35% of us. It's not known exactly why sunlight causes certain people to sneeze but some researchers believe the reaction is genetic.

7. What else can make you sneeze?

A sneeze starts in your nerves and although we're basically all wired in the same way, signals can take slightly different paths to and from the brain, resulting in different sneeze scenarios.

Which is why in some people, plucking their eyebrows brings on a sneeze by setting off a facial nerve that's connected to their nasal passages. In other people, exercise, sex, or mint - including mint chewing gum - have all been reported to make us sneeze.

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