A Convulsive Explosion of Air

A Convulsive Explosion of Air

by Leanne Lippincott-Wuerthele


A portion of Psalm 139:13-14 says, “For you [God] formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (ESV).

I especially like The Living Bible paraphrase of these verses:

“You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit them together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! It is amazing to think about. Your workmanship is marvelous—and how well I know it.”

All of us have experienced “sternutation”—defined as “a sneeze, or the act of sneezing.” It seems like such a simple action, but it’s actually highly complex.

In medical jargon, a sneeze is “a semi-autonomous, convulsive expulsion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth, usually caused by foreign particles irritating the nasal mucosa.” It’s also “an explosive, spasmodic involuntary action.”

The mechanics of a simple sneeze are fairly complicated.

During a sneeze, the soft palate and uvula depress while the back of the tongue elevates, partially closing the passage to the mouth. This allows the air ejected from the lungs to be expelled through the nose. Because our mouths are only partially closed, a considerable amount of this air is usually also expelled from the mouth.

A sneeze involves our face, throat, diaphragm, belly muscles, and chest muscles. A sneeze also involves our eyelids. Contrary to popular belief, some people can keep their eyes open when they sneeze. Also, the rhythm of our hearts may change during a sneeze, but our hearts don’t stop beating.

A number of factors can prompt sneezing: Sudden exposure to bright light or cold air, nasal congestion, allergies, sudden falling temperatures, a viral infection, a full stomach, mint candy, exercise, eyebrow plucking, and sex.

We’re unable to sneeze while sleeping, but we can if we’re partially awake. Sneezing is usually harmless, but it can spread disease through “infectious aerosol droplets.” One sneeze can spread 40,000 droplets. Also, traveling at 100 mph, a single sneeze can send 100,000 germs into the air.

Growing up, I was taught to cover my mouth when I sneezed, using either a tissue or handkerchief. Nowadays, we’re told to hold the forearm or the inside of the elbow in front of your mouth when sneezing.

Techniques to avoid sneezing include deeply exhaling the air in the lungs that would otherwise be used in the act of sneezing. You can also try holding your breath while counting to ten. Sometimes, pinching the bridge of your nose for several seconds also stifles the explosion.

Donna Griffiths of Worcestershire, England, holds the world record for sneezing. On January 13, 1981, she began sneezing once every minute. (She was 12 at the time.) The repetition eventually lengthened to once every five minutes. When she stopped on September 16, 1983, she had sneezed for 978 consecutive days.

The Greek word for sneeze is “pneuma,” which means “soul” or “spirit.” There are many theories why people give a post-sneeze blessing, many based on ancient superstitions. Here are just a few:

During the Middle Ages, some believed a sneeze could cause the soul to escape through a person’s nose, allowing the devil to claim it. Others believed the heart missed a beat during a sneeze, allowing evil spirits to enter the body. In either case, saying “God bless you” would save people from the devil.

Another superstition held that a sneeze could expel a large amount air from the body, resulting in instant death. By saying, “God bless you,” the “victim” would at least go to heaven with God’s blessing.

Next month, I’ll mention more “blessing theories” regarding sneezing. Until then…

Ahhh, ahh… choo! “God bless you.”

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