Ahh… the involuntary, thunderous sneeze. Or, sternutation, if you want to be pompous about it. It sneaks up on you without warning like an anatomical earthquake: Your lungs spontaneously fill with air, your abdominal and chest muscles compress like a vice, your eyes close tight and… Achooo! Congratulations, Tex, you just diffused your lip full of tobacco across a convenience store full of people.
And that’s just it: In some situations, you have to hold in a sneeze. You might be driving 90 on the freeway; chewing a huge mouthful of pizza; performing oral sex on a close acquaintance; or doing all three at the same time. But every cause has an effect, and while it may sometimes feel necessary to suppress your sneeze, doing so can be dangerous.
Just ask one unfortunate bloke from the U.K. who attempted to test the forces of human anatomy: The otherwise healthy, 34-year-old didn’t just place his index finger horizontally below his nostrils to stifle his sneeze — he went as far as pinching his nose and clamping his mouth shut. Immediately afterward, he felt a popping sensation in his neck. It became swollen, and he found it difficult to swallow. He lost his voice as well. When doctors at a local hospital examined him, they learned he had ripped a hole in the soft tissue of his throat, causing air to leak into his neck.
All from holding in a sneeze.
To understand how the poor chap ended up this way, we must first consider the forceful physiology of a sneeze. First off, it’s actually a protective reflex, which means it’s for your own good. Commonly, it begins when the nasal mucosa (the lining of your nose) becomes irritated by things like dirt, dust, bacteria or other particles. This irritation sends a signal to your brain, which activates your chest, lungs and abdomen to work in unison to compress and expel the particles through your nose and mouth. It’s powerful, too: The top speed of a sneeze can reach upwards of 100 miles per hour and jettison particles outward up to 30 feet, so holding it in is almost like stopping a professional fastball in its tracks, with the inside of your neck.
According to Live Science, injuries that could occur from a halted sneeze are rare, but if you’re unlucky — like our U.K. mate — you could rupture your eardrums, break a blood vessel in the whites of your eyes or injure your diaphragm. In the worst-case scenario, you could weaken a blood vessel in the brain and cause it to rupture. “The risk of an injury is low, but you might just be the unlucky one,” Alan Wild, a head and neck surgeon and assistant professor of otolaryngology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, told Live Science.
The real question, though, is where does a sneeze go when you suppress it? Is it like a deleted email that vanishes into cyberspace? Erich Voigt, clinical associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health, explained to Men’s Health: “If you keep the mouth or nose closed, the generated pressure will back up into your head (sinuses), nasal cavity or down the throat back into the chest.”
Translation: It doesn’t go anywhere you want it to go.
So a jury of your logical-minded peers has reached a verdict: Let that sneeze blast off, champ. Just make sure you cover your mouth first.