Has this ever happened to you? You’re walking along, minding your own business when suddenly, for no reason, you sneeze? You make a weird noise, spew out a bit of mucous, maybe pee your pants a little and go on your way. But, next time you look in the mirror you realize one of your eyeballs is completely bloody?

No? It’s never happened to you? Well, it had never happened to me either until Sunday. But it’s okay. I remained calm, assessed the situation and figured I’d had a small brain aneurysm and this was nature’s way of pointing it out to me. Ordinarily, I would have left it at that, but I had to go pick up a few groceries anyway and a walk-in clinic happened to be in the same strip mall and since everyone was too busy watching some sort of super-bowling thing to be sick, the clinic was, for the first time ever, not jam-packed.

The doctor said it was probably just a subconjunctival hemorrhage  , which sounds really impressive, but is really only a burst blood vessel from sneezing or some other strain. She did take my blood pressure to make sure I wasn’t stroking out, but that was pretty much it for my pathetic little medical drama.

Sneezing sounds like a fairly innocuous activity, but it’s actually fraught with dangers beyond popping a blood vessel or two or the spread of disease. Just ask Zoom about The Sneeze That Changed Her Life that resulted in excrutating spinal pain and mobility decline, weeks in a wheelchair and finally back surgery. It happens all the time – people throw their backs out and slip or rupture discs just by sneezing.

No wonder — scientists estimate the speed of a sneeze at approximately 100 – 300 mph! And what that force sometimes does to your body is remarkable.

A forceful sneeze has broken or cracked people’s ribs, caused whiplash and even brought on heart attacks. Suppressed sneezes are even more dangerous. They can cause massive build-up of pressure in the head, which can cause injuries such as a burst eardrum, torn blood vessels and muscles in the head, damaged sinuses and even, in rare cases, brain hemorrhages. Heavy bouts of sneezing have likewise caused brain hemorrhages, heart attacks and even death.

People have chipped and broken teeth while sneezing; bitten their tongues or cheeks which later became infected and caused no end of trouble. And the droplets from a sneeze can disperse as far as 8 feet and infect anyone breathing them in. So, when you feel a sneeze coming on, grab a tissue, try to brace yourself – hold your abdominal muscles tight and don’t let the sneeze hurl your head and body around too much.

Some of the stories we’ve all heard about sneezing, however, are not true.

  • Your heart does not stop when you sneeze
  • Your eyes will not pop out of your head if you don’t close them while you sneeze
  • If a woman sneezes right after having sex, it will NOT prevent pregnancy

Saying “Bless You” after someone sneezes dates back to the 14th Century and the Black Plague. Sneezing was one of the first symptoms of the plague, so people would ask for blessing whenever they sneezed in hopes that they weren’t going become afflicted.

Pretty much every culture today responds to someone else’s sneeze either with a variation of Bless You or a variation of Gesundheit — which means “health”.  Isn’t that strange? Nobody just says “ewwww”, which is usually my first instinct.

And my eye? It seems to be recovering nicely. Thank you for asking.


25 responses to “Gesundheit!

  1. The other day I sneezed 15 times in a row. I am a great sneezer. I do not hold it in, I sneeze into a hankie and and I just let have it and when I am done, for whatever reason, I always feel much better. I have never broken anything, had anything pop. I have pretty much daily bouts of sneezing that never end in one or two, I am usually good for half dozen or so. Now that I know it is so dangerous I will be more paranoid in the future and say a prayer when I feel them come on.

  2. Whenever my brother and I were going somewhere in his car and he felt a sneeze coming, he wouldn’t try to stifle it, or cover his mouth or anything. He’d just release it into the wild and let it fly, splattering the inside of the windshield. And then, he’d nonchalantly reach up and turn on the wipers.

    I have no idea why, but it always cracked me up.

  3. How odd and timely this is! This is from a January 6 e-mail from my best friend:

    “…and put my make-up on. Just was I was finishing I sneezed. Now that normally would be like a “so what” thing….. not this sneeze… it f+++ed my back UP! I went to my old chiro this morning but he couldn’t adjust me at all. I’m going to see him tomorrow at 5:30 again. He says it’s either a ruptured disk or a badly pulled muscle.”

    She was screwed up the whole month of January and was taking prednisone, muscle relaxers and pain pills. I’m going to send your post to her.

    Like Cedarflame, I am a master sneezer. I sneeze every day, sometimes many times in a row. And instead of “Bless you!” we do a jokey thing when someone sneezes. We do the classic librarian “Ssshhhh!” It’s really funny. I hope your eye clears up soon.

  4. Cedar – I saw that on your FB right after I finished writing this post and I thought “Uh oh, I hope she doesn’t read this post.” But there you are – first up. Oh well, you’ve survived this long, you’ll probably be okay.

    Dr. Monkey – Ya, the doc says it happens all the time. I’m a little scared to sneeze any more though.

    Fool – Hmm, that’s just yucky. I wonder if he did that when he was out with a date, too?

    Geewits – Ouch. Your poor friend. Is she okay now? Zoom was actually wheelchair bound she was in so much pain and had to have surgery to get her discs fixed up. And thanks, the eye is much better. It was actually a little sore on Sunday, too. Weird, eh?

    MM – Live and learn. Live and learn. It’s such a normal and necessary function, you’d think your body would have figured out a way to make it less dangerous.

    Jazz – Ah HA! So, it’s not just one of those odd scientific anomalies. What happens when you blow your eardrums out? Do you go deaf forever? Can they fix it? It probably hurts a lot, right?

  5. Don’t believe the doctor. Your eye turning red like that after a sneeze is confirmation that you are the devil’s spawn.
    Get thee behind me.

  6. Did you know that sneezes can be induced, and not just from from nasal irritants. Whenever Logan-the-Dog lies on his back and lets me scratch his belly, he gives a good sneeze after about 20 seconds of belly rub. Whenever I point my face up to the sun, close my eyes and just bask in the light for a moment, it triggers a sneeze. Whenever Zoom has an Altoid it sets off a series of sneezes. In fact it may have been an Altoid that changed the course of history for Zoom last year. Do you think that belly rubs, sunshine and Altoids relax muscles and give rise to a “sneeze of contentment”?

  7. Bless you..

    I once was told by a friend that his cousin’s aunt’s friend’s husband’s uncle or something sneezed so hard he blew his head clean off.

    I never believed that was possible until today..

  8. If I were you, I would be more concerned about peeing my pants when I sneeze, more than the bloodshot eye. Maybe Depends are in order.

    I sneeze in bright light, until my eyes adjust to it.

    I also once worked with a woman who would sneeze so hard and so loudly, the entire office would hear it. I always wondered if it was necessary to be that loud about it, but she was a loud person to begin with.

  9. Dave – Why are you talking like a crazy revivalist preacher man? I don’t know what’s scarier — being a devil spawn or a revivalist preacher.

    Skylark : I stole this off the internet: The probable cause (of sneezing in bright light) is a congenital malfunction in nerve signals in the trigeminal nerve nuclei. The fifth cranial nerve, called the trigeminal nerve, is apparently responsible for sneezes. Research suggests that some people have an association between this nerve and the nerve that transmits visual impulses to the brain. Overstimulation of the optic nerve triggers the trigeminal nerve, and this causes the photic sneeze reflex.This sneeze reflex can also be brought on by sudden inhalation of cold air or exposure to strong flavors. This implies an overstimulation of any nerve close to the trigeminal nerve can cause the sneeze reflex.

    Glen – I think that’s an urban myth. I think Mythbusters have probably busted that one already. Probably what happened was someone sneezed so hard is snapped their neck and then her husband, afraid that he would get charged for her murder, pulled her head all the way off (it was already loose after all). Of course he got caught. Children spread the story of this gruesome event and eventually it evolved that the story just said she sneezed her head clean off.

    Bob – See the light-sneeze connection explanation in my comment to Skylark. Also, I never said I peed when I sneeze, I just gave it as an example of things that happen sometimes when “some” people sneeze. But thank you for your concern.

  10. glad to hear i am not the only one that might let a dribble or two of pee out when wracked by a violent sneeze.

    glad to hear the eye thing was only a subconjunctival hemorrhage. i can’t pronouce it, but at least it isn’t serious, right?

  11. I hate sneezing and do it quite often due to allergies! But I’m not surprised to hear about it causing back problems as I was at my parents recently and my tailbone was behaving UNTIL I started sneezing then it was like:
    “Ah choo! Ow! Ah choo! OWWWW! Wtf?”

  12. Speaking of hay fever sneeze attacks, when I was young, I used to sneeze every morning from mid August to late September, at 9 am. Precisely. For half an hour. It amused my teachers, which I hated, so I learned to try to suppress them. Spent the rest of the day with a headache.
    We also had a neighbour who lived across the street whose sneezes were so loud we could hear him every time no matter where he was in his house.
    I’m glad the eye is better and that you got in to an empty clinic.

  13. SmoMo – Thanks for visiting my blog at long last!! Also, I want to be clear that I didn’t actually say that I peed when I sneeze…I just suggested it as something some people might do sometimes. Not necessarily me. You, apparently, but not necessarily me. And yes, the eye thing was just a run-of-the-mill thing to the doctor even though it looks freaky.

    Pauline – Oh dear. I hope you didn’t do any permanent damage. Still it’s better than a brain hemorrhage I guess.

    Friar – I only ever sneeze once. I don’t think I’ve ever sneezed more than once in a row – certainly not 20-30 times. But there’s a guy in a cubicle across from me who does that all the time. So far it hasn’t killed him.

    Violetsky – I know eh? That almost empty clinic was eerie. I think I spent a total of 15 minutes from when I walked in to when I walked out. Totally unheard of. Of course when I’m really sick they make me wait for hours. Also, I’m glad you don’t have to sneeze like that every morning anymore.

  14. And of course, I had both cats sitting on me as I as reading this. And sneezing. I am scared to get up and look in the mirror now.

    Also, is it wrong of me to want to see a photo of your gruesome eye?

  15. Same thing happened to a girl at work- big bloody eye blot. In the interests of fashion can I suggest sneezing again to at least get the other eye sorted out so that you are symmetrical?

  16. So sorry to hear about your eye. I’ve done the sneeze and neck crack before. It’s strange. It’s like the sneeze is some form of punishment. Maybe sneezes are the truth (of our lies) coming back to attack us?

    I was in the pool today and I had to sneeze and for a second I thought, “make sure you sneeze into your crelbow” but then I realized it didn’t really matter WHERE I sneezed because it would all end up in the water anyway. All this is to say that pools are like giant snot rags.

    Also, I wrote a list of places to safely sneeze in the wake of H1N1 on my humour blog earlier this winter. It’s pretty damn informative (e.g. sneezing into a drawer and then sealing that drawer until the spring). Here’s the link if anyone wants to check it out.

  17. Eyeteaguy – Wow. That IS weird.

    Loth – I’m surprised you’re the only person who asked to see a photo. I didn’t take one Sunday when it was really yucky and by Monday, when I thought of it, it had already half healed. Today it’s just a bit red. But on the bright side, since you just sneezed maybe you have your own eye haemorrhage to look at??

    MisssyM – How can I be sure the hemmorhage will happen in the other eye and not in the same eye or in my brain or something? One has to be careful about these things.

    Kim – Thanks. I did a post of the bizarre elbow sneeze fashion a while back, too. Like it’s better for us all to run around with snot filled clothing than to spew it into the air. Has everyone forgotten their hankies??

  18. I love the variation in how people sneeze. My sister-in-law does a string of 5 – 10 wee little mini sneezes one after the other. Ah-chu-chu-chu-chu-chu-chew! My husband’s sneezes are monstrously loud to the point that I feel myself bracing for the sound when I hear him to the sharp inhale of breath before he sneezes.

    My own sneezing quirk is that I’m a photogenic sneezer. I especially react to the sun on really bright mornings when the sunlight just happens to hit the corner of my eye. My mother and grandfather also sneezed when exposed to bright sunshine, and my daughter does, too.

  19. Mary Lynn – Sneezing IS weird. I actually copied and pasted an explanation about photic sneezing in my comment to Skylark above.

  20. Ah! I’d missed that.

    I also remember a friend from university telling me that the prof in a human physiology course she was taking described a sneeze as “a mini-orgasm inside your head”. My friend then commented, “ever since I heard that I’ve tried to thoroughly enjoy each and every sneeze.”