A sneeze may not mean illness

Let's unearth the real meaning of "a sneeze." I sneezed several times this past week and the reaction was typically, "Catching a cold are you?" or "Got the sniffles?"

No, I don't think so. Nor do I have a lurking allergy. I just sneezed. It's a rather refreshing reflex actually. My husband does it better than I do, always has. He sneezes three times in a row — sometimes more. When our kids were younger, they would call out "the count," and if there were more than seven sneezes in a row, there would be celebratory shouts and the dog's tail would start wagging.

In his case, there actually was (well, more directly put, "is") a lurking allergy — and it involves animals, including dogs. But that's another topic altogether, and I think it's better left completely unexplored for the moment because we love our dog very much and allergies can be managed.

The medical term for a sneeze is "sternutation." I learned that from an article (www.intelihealth.com) written by a Harvard rheumatologist who understands the phenomena very well and explains it as "a complex reflex involving nerves in the nose that detect swelling of the nasal membranes, particles of a certain size (in the environment) or substances to which one might be allergic."

In other words, the nose knows.

We come in contact with things that may elicit sneezing behavior all day long. I think it's useful to recognize the urge doesn't necessarily mean illness is imminent. You can sneeze just for the sake of sneezing. A bright light can trigger a sneeze, so can pepper, cold air and dust. Whatever the cause, when that sneeze is triggered, watch out. Those "particles of a certain size in the environment" can cause a gust from your nasal passage clocked at more than 100 mph.

If a head cold is behind all that sneezing, the whoosh from your nose (and mouth) is drenched in potentially infectious bacteria. I admire the folks who turn their ready-to-sneeze face into their shoulder or "elbow-pit" (isn't that an interesting little term? I got that from a third-grader with a particularly soggy one.)

The sneezing-on-yourself approach is a skill I have yet to perfect. I grew up thinking you use a white cotton handkerchief, which you should always carry — or you lunge for a box of tissues and hope you make it in time. I also grew up being told "never shake hands with someone after you've sneezed" (or, more particularly, after they have sneezed). First and always, employ a hand-washing ritual (15-20 seconds, warm water, soap and lots of friction).

That practical reminder aside, I think sneezing should be thought of as an opportunity for social exchange. Think about it, when you sneeze even strangers say, "Bless you." And who knows, maybe you strike up a conversation with that stranger and you go out for a cup of tea together and discuss the fine art of sneezing and life in general. If that happens, remind them of the meaning of the word "gesundheit." (And that would be "¦ "health.")

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension Service. She can be reached at s.johnson@oregonstate.edu

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