Who Knew Sneezing Could Be So Dangerous?

Protect your mouth, your throat, your neck — your entire body, actually — by following a few key steps and practices

Everyone has his or her own sneeze. Some people emit tiny mouse-like squeaks, while others can’t control the honk that comes out. Still others try to hold back halfway before erupting into a kind of flapping that makes everyone else choke down laughter.

However, due to a recent sneezing episode by one 34-year-old man, experts are now reminding people to simply let it loose. It’s safer for everyone involved.

report recently published in BMJ Case Reports noted that a man literally blew a hole in his neck while attempting to hold in a sneeze.

The previously healthy man had pinched his nose and closed his mouth during an episode, an action he had likely done dozens of times before.

This sneeze, though, ended up being particularly forceful, and the man noticed something unusual this time. Upon sneezing, he heard a distinct popping sound coming from his neck. Later, when his neck started swelling and causing pain, he knew he needed to go to the emergency room.

There, doctors discovered that he had suffered trauma to his neck, literally perforating a tiny hole in it from the force of his sneeze. Although the man didn’t need surgery, he was admitted to the hospital and given a feeding tube and antibiotics to fend off infection.

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After seven days, the man showed marked improvement and was released with the advice to “avoid obstructing both nostrils while sneezing.” Who knew that sneezing could be so dangerous?

What’s the point of sneezing? Other than embarrassing yourself with a deep sneeze in a quiet room or a productive one that needs several tissues, what’s the point of your body sneezing anyway? Sneezing is actually an important reflex.

As you might know, when you breathe air through your nose, the air gets filtered there automatically. First, large particles are trapped by nose hairs as the air passes into the nasal conchae. Then, the air can be warmed while smaller particles get filtered out.

Eventually, though, a chemical, pollen or another substance will irritate the nose lining, creating the infamous tickling of the nose. At that point, your body naturally takes in a deep breath, and pressure starts to build inside.

Then, your tongue pushes against the roof of your mouth, and — achoo! Air is forced back through your nose to expel whatever irritated it. The end result is a clear nasal passage that’s ready to start filtering again. Lovely, huh?

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Sneezing might not look or feel pleasant, but it gets the job done. In fact, it does its job a little too well, spreading germs on anyone within a few feet of the sneezer.

Is that reason enough to hold back? Think again.

The American Lung Association indicates a sneeze can produce enough force to expel germs at a rate of 100 miles per hour. No wonder the British guy blew a hole in his neck.

Now, with no safe way of holding back, you and everyone else are left figuring out how to let things go gracefully. Thankfully, it can be done.

While sneezing might be hard to control, you do have some say over where you put your sneeze. Make sure you and your family members know the proper way and place to sneeze, especially if you have small children. Covering up your sneeze might sound like common sense to you, but others might need to be reminded.

Here are a few rules to review about sneezing:

Cover up. Sometime in your life, you might have seen people just let go without covering up the sneeze. They might have just been trying to avoid sliming themselves, but they’re not doing anyone else any favors.

Again, sneezing can spray thousands of germy droplets all over people and objects within a few feet. In the winter, that might mean a few more cases of a cold or the flu. Make sure all in your house know that they have to cover their sneeze in some shape or form in order to avoid getting others sick.

As a protective measure, wash your hands periodically throughout the day, too.

Use your elbow. Following the idea of covering up, experts recommend sneezing into your elbow or upper sleeve if you don’t have a tissue. People are less likely to shake your elbow or touch your upper arm than they are your hands. By using your elbow, you won’t have to worry about spreading germs on things you touch, either.

Find a tissue. The most protective way of sneezing is into a sturdy, disposable tissue. Tissues cover up your face entirely and then you can easily clean up without any embarrassment. Even if you didn’t get a tissue in time, make sure you wipe your nose with one rather than using your sleeve or hand.

Wash your hands. No matter what, make sure you wash your hands after sneezing. Did you use your elbow or wipe with a tissue? You still need to wash any germs that may have made their way onto your hands, anyway. As a protective measure, wash your hands periodically throughout the day, too.

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As one man recently found out, sneezing can be a dangerous business, especially if you try to hold it in.

Although you might have good intentions, it’s safer for everyone if you simply let it go. Thankfully, if you sneeze the proper way, you can avoid much embarrassment and still get the job done.

This piece originally appeared in AskDrManny.comDr. Manny Alvarez serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. 

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