The science behind your sneeze: everyone’s is different, but why?

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Hannah Keegan
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A product of our environment? An expression of our personality? Or just the shape of our face? Stylist investigates why all sneezes are different, and what yours could say about you. 

Last month, a four-minute-long video was uploaded to YouTube under the name ‘Celebrities Sneezing’.

It opens with Serena Williams – in a black Nike jacket and bright orange visor – sat in front of journalists at a press conference. At first, it seems as though Williams is confused, she blinks, rubs her forehead and tries to concentrate on the question. But something mysterious is preventing her from doing so, a headache, perhaps? Is she about to cry? She raises her index finger to signal the journalist to stop talking, pinches her nose and lets out an anticlimactic “ump” noise. And they all move on.

The most memorable – and, by far, my favourite sneeze – is Claudia Winkleman’s. It happens during a radio interview and comes out as a series of high pitched screeches “Hah-choo! Hah-choo! Hah-choo! Hah-choo!” – “I’m so sorr… Hah-choo!” 

The video, as bizarre as it is, has been watched by over 28,000 people since it was uploaded. My guess is that watching celebrities do something as mundane, human and out of their control as sneezing offers some kind of voyeuristic pleasure. But, in all honesty, have you ever devoted much time to thinking about your own sneeze? And other people’s? At Stylist we were curious about this: we all sneeze differently, but why? We decided to delve a little deeper.

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On average we sneeze four times a day, according to a study by the department of otorhinolaryngology at Rigshospitalet in Denmark. And as we enter hay fever season, which typically begins in late March and finishes around September, sneezing is about to become a much bigger deal, whether you’re a sufferer or not. In 2017, 31% of adults in the UK reported that they’d experienced hay fever within the past 12 months.

But why do we sneeze? A sneeze, with its loud, guttural noises and ability to render you momentarily helpless, is a dramatic bodily response to something as banal as high pollen count. So what’s going on?

“Allergy happens when our immune system falsely recognises harmless protein – an allergen, like pollen – as an invader,” explains Dr Michael Rudenko, medical director of the London Allergy and Immunology Centre. “This results in the production of allergic antibodies, which activate cells storing histamine. They’re called ‘mast cells’,” he adds. “Histamine is expelled from the mast cells and this irritates the nerves.” 

But while we all suffer the same response to irritants, like pollen or a cold virus, a sneeze doesn’t happen the same way for everyone.

“A sneeze is actually an involuntary vocalisation, but there are still things that influence the way we do it,” explains neuroscientist Dr Sophie Scott of University College London. “One is our bodies. If you have a bigger body, you will naturally make a different sound when you sneeze because there is more air in your lungs for you to generate bigger forces. Another is the shape of your face. It’s comparable to two people who sound very different when they sing. For example, Barbra Streisand famously refused to have a nose job because she was worried it would affect the sound of her voice. And she was right.”

Dr Adrian Morris, an allergist at Surrey Allergy Clinic, agrees. “People sneeze in different ways for different reasons. The way in which the body releases the histamine can be a factor, for example, if you are prone to sneezing in clusters that can mean your body is actually releasing the histamine into your nose in doses rather than all at once.”

He adds, “Anecdotally, we know a good sneeze can feel cathartic.” For Carys Edwards, a marketing executive from London, this has been true for as long as she can remember. “I make a very loud ‘WHACHOW’ sound,” she says, “but I love the feeling, I wouldn’t hold it in – it’s refreshing.”

Sneezing has been regarded sceptically throughout history. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates believed it was dangerous before or after a lung illness, but could be beneficial to other ailments, writing: “Sneezing, in the case of a person afflicted with hiccup, cures the hiccup.”

During the Middle Ages, people thought a sudden sneeze was a warning that you were close to evil, according to neurologist Jean Jacques Askenasy who has researched the subject. In the Talmud, it’s considered to be a good omen if it happens while you’re praying. Askenasy’s research also found that Jewish mothers, on hearing a child sneeze, “proclaim the blessing ‘to health’ and pull the child’s ear, thereby averting an unknown catastrophe. On the second sneeze, the other ear will be pulled up accompanied by the blessing ‘to grow and thrive’.” 

The superstitions don’t stop there. In China and Japan, it’s commonly thought that if you sneeze randomly, it means someone is talking about you. And in Poland, it’s believed that a sneeze means a person’s mother-in-law is criticising them. Turkish researchers Murat Songu and Cemal Cingi discovered that folk belief once held that sneezing could rid a person of the devil. It could, however, also open the body up to an “invasion by Satan and evil spirits”. 

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Whatever the symbolism, the language surrounding sneezing is impacted by geography.

In 2015, James Chapman, a Manchester-based graphic designer, launched a Kickstarter campaign for a book called How To Sneeze In Japanese. Three years earlier, he had been visiting a friend who was teaching English in South Korea when he noticed the sound they made to mimic a dog’s bark sounded strange. “They would say ‘mung mung’,” he says, “I grew up speaking English so, to me, ‘woof’ was just the sound a dog makes. That was a fact to me.”

Soon after, he embarked on a Tumblr project where he would pick a different animal sound each week, illustrate it and post it to his page. It was during this time that he received a message on the website from a fan that sparked an idea. It read: “I’m Russian, but I’ve lived in the US since I was nine years old. When I sneeze I combine sounds from two cultures. I make an ‘apchoo’ sound.”

Chapman was intrigued. “I’d never considered this before. I associated a big theatrical ‘achoo’ with my Dad, but that was about it,” he says. He began contacting people from around the world to ask about the sound they made in their country.

The results ranged from ‘hapsu’ in Turkish to ‘achhee’ in Hindi, and became the foundations of the book. In it, he explores other sounds like eating, kissing, drinking and laughing, which also vary across languages. It received over £17,000 in backing. 

According to Dr Gabriella Vigliocco, a professor in the psychology of language at University College London, onomatopoeic sounds – like sneezing – form the foundation of any language.

“The noise we make to articulate a sneeze, ‘etciú’ in Italian for example, is very similar to the involuntary sound that our mouths make when we actually sneeze,” she says. “The word has the same nasal quality in every language.”

Vigliocco ventures that if someone grows up bilingual, it will depend on the language they’re speaking at the time of sneezing that determines the noise they make. For Lou Palin, a bilingual student from Paris, this is true. “I don’t consciously pick the sound I make,” she explains. “But if I think of my mum or grandma sneezing they do make more of a French sound than my dad who is British.” 

Some of us don’t make any sound at all. Charlie Swinbourne jokingly listed “faking sneezes” as one of the “10 Most Annoying Habits of Hearing People” in a post on the popular deaf blog The Limping Chicken. If you can’t hear the hearing population saying ‘achoo’ (or ‘etciú’), then you miss out on the need to fit in. As a result, those born deaf make no sneeze-sound other than the expelling of air.

But can the way we sneeze give us any real insights into who we are? In Atlanta, Georgia, there is a body language expert who thinks so.

“I first made the connection when I was teaching a three-day public speaking programme,” Patti Wood tells me. “As part of the course, each participant takes a test to find out their DISC personality.” DISC is a personality test founded by American psychologist William Moulton Marston; it stands for the four personality types it claims people have: Dominant, Influential, Steady, Conscientious.

“I began to notice that each person’s sneeze was distinctly different. I have quite an unusual sneeze, usually three in a row, and someone in the group sneezed exactly the same way and it turned out that we were both influencers,” she adds. 

This led to Wood partnering with Benadryl to conduct a survey of 1,000 people to determine sneezing styles. The study claims the majority of participants’ sneezes matched their DISC personality types. For instance, Wood claims that if you are a dominant personality your sneeze is “loud, abrupt and you move on quickly”. An influencer’s sneeze will be “dramatic, often come in multiples and will usually be followed by laughter or a smile”. A conscientious personality, she says, will suppress or cover the sneeze up and “look harshly at people who sneeze without covering their mouth”. 

Similarly, supporters will sneeze softly and “be quicker to grab tissue”. The study also gleaned an interesting gender difference: 32% of women said they hold in their sneeze, while 42% of men said they were “big sneezers”.

Alice Kemp-Habib, a writer from London, didn’t think about the sound of her own sneeze until she was 13. “One of my teachers sneezed like a pixie – high-pitched and girlish – and I remember the whole class laughing when we first heard it. It was kind of ironic because she was a monster,” she says. “That was the first time I really ever considered the sound of my own.”

The problem with this, according to Scott, is that sneezing isn’t a communicative device. “Even behaviours like yawning and laughing are more complex because they can be social,” she says. “Sometimes, for example, you will catch a yawn or a laugh as a way of signalling to another person that you’re there with them, you’re experiencing the same thing. You can’t catch a sneeze.” 

We can, however, still moderate what it says about us if we want to. “I suspect it comes back to how much you care about what people think about you,” Scott adds. “How people deal with public perception differs across personalities.”

For Wood, at least, this is certainly true. “Sometimes,” she says, “if I’m in a social setting, like work or a party, I’ll suppress the sneeze. I’ll make that decision out of social etiquette. But the point is, I’m suppressing what I know is natural for me. And that says something about who I am.” 

How to ease your hay fever

You have your antihistamines, but what else can help you stop sneezing?

The rinse aid

Yogi's Nosebuddy (hay fever aid)

Use a neti pot to flush out your nose with salt water. Warning: it takes some getting used to.

The nasal spray

The fastest solution to a blocked nose: this spray relieves your sinuses and eyes in two sniffs.

The relaxing bath

Aromatherapy Associates’ bath oil is full of ingredients to help congestion.

The barrier balm

Hay Max is applied to your nostrils and claims to trap over one third of pollen grains before you breathe them in.

The preventative

Bee Prepared say that taking their product daily will help you to face the pollen onslaught.

Unbeelievable Health Bee Prepared Max Strength

Images: Getty


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Hannah Keegan

Hannah Keegan is the features writer at Stylist magazine.

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