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Question Does your heart stop when you sneeze?

Answer

No, your heart does not stop when you sneeze.

Edison Kinetoscopic record of a sneeze. Print shows a man, Edison engineer Fred Ott, sneezing. The accompanying Harper’s Weekly article describes the image as “the entire record of a sneeze from the first taking of a pinch of snuff to the recover” using “eight-one prints taken in about two seconds.” Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

A sneeze begins with a tickling sensation in the nerve endings that sends a message to your brain that it needs to rid itself of something irritating the lining of your nose. You first take a deep breath and hold it, which tightens your chest muscles. The pressure of air in your lungs increases, you close your eyes, your tongue presses against the roof of your mouth and suddenly your breath comes out fast through your nose.

Ah–tchi: ou Rhume de cerveau. Caricature: a man is sneezing into a handkerchief.  National Library of Medicine Digital Collections.

So where did the myth originate that your heart stops when you sneeze?  The changing pressure in your chest due to sneezing also changes your blood flow, which may change the rhythm of your heartbeat. Dr. Richard Conti, past president of the American College of Cardiology, speculates that the belief that the heart actually comes to a stop during a sneeze could result from the sensation of having the heart “skip a beat.” When there is a prolonged delay before the heart’s next beat, he said, that beat is then more forceful and more noticeable, perhaps as a funny sensation in the throat or upper chest (Ray, 1992).

Poster ad for Arrow Handkerchiefs.  Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Why do people say, “God bless you,” after someone sneezes?

There are varying accounts as to the origin of this response.  One belief is that it originated in Rome when the bubonic plague was raging through Europe.  One of the symptoms of the plague was coughing and sneezing, and it is believed that Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) suggested saying “God bless you” after a person sneezed in hopes that this prayer would protect them from an otherwise certain death.

The expression may have also originated from superstition. Some people believe that the custom of asking for God’s blessing began when ancient man thought that the soul was in the form of air and resided in the body’s head. A sneeze, therefore, might accidentally expel the spirit from the body unless God blessed you and prevented this from occurring.  Some ancient cultures also thought that sneezing forced evil spirits out of the body endangering others because these spirits might now enter their bodies. The blessing was bestowed to protect both the person who sneezed and others around him.

Woman in a lace dress waving a handkerchief, c1900. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Sneeze responses from around the world:

English – “Bless you” or “God bless you”
German – “Gesundheit”
Greeks and Romans – “Banish the Omen”
Hindu – “Live” and responds “With you”
Zulu – “I am now blessed”

Interesting facts:

  • Sneezes are an automatic reflex that can’t be stopped once sneezing starts.
  • Sneezes can travel at a speed of 100 miles per hour and the wet spray can radiate five feet.
  • People don’t sneeze when they are asleep because the nerves involved in nerve reflex are also resting.
  • Between 18 and 35% of the population sneezes when exposed to sudden bright light.
  • Some people sneeze when plucking their eyebrows because the nerve endings in the face are irritated and then fire an impulse that reaches the nasal nerve.
  • Donna Griffiths from Worcestershire, England sneezed for 978 days, sneezing once every minute at the beginning. This is the longest sneezing episode on record.
“Do not sneeze in your gas mask,”  The Stars and Stripes, February 15, 1918, page 7.   Library of Congress

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