Did you know that your most forceful sneeze can travel out of your mouth at the speed of a category two hurricane—approximately 100 miles per hour? Sneezes can also spray up to 5,000 particles, which can travel up to 20 feet. Since it’s flu season and I happened to be irritably sneezing with a cold the other day, I was curious about the science of sneezing.
Why do we sneeze? Sneezing is an important function of the immune system that keeps us healthy. It is an involuntary action that reboots our body by dispelling irritating particles from the nose. According to an otolaryngologist—ear, nose, and throat specialist—interviewed by National Geographic, a sneeze works by “resetting the system—like Control-Alt-Delete on a PC.”
Sneezing is an amazingly complex process that requires the cooperation of the nervous and muscular systems. The sensation of a sneeze starts with a tingly feeling your nose. The cilia—nose hair—sense bacteria or viruses, and a message is sent to the “sneeze center” in your brain, located in the lower brain stem. Signals then travel to the muscles that close your throat, eyes, and mouth. Your chest muscles vigorously contract, and your throat muscles quickly relax. As a result of this biological response, air—along with saliva and mucus—is forced out of your mouth and nose.
A tip on sneezing etiquette: a sneeze is better out than in. Suppressing a sneeze can sometimes cause injuries to the blood vessels in your eyes and brain, as well as to your ears, which are sensitive to pressure. And of course, you should sneeze into your elbow rather than your hands or the air, in order to avoid spreading germs to others.
If you’re interested in what your sneeze says about your personality, check out the following article.