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The Big Sneeze

With the ‘flu’ season looming, and concerns about Corona Virus (COVID-19) outbreak reaching fever pitch, it might be time to rethink how, why and where we sneeze.

Sneezing — or as it is known in the medical community, sternutation — is one thing that every human (and many other living organisms) have in common.

The phenomenon occurs when the respiratory epithelium that lines the nose is irritated. Irritation of this mucus membrane stimulates the endings of the trigeminal (or fifth) cranial nerve, sending a message to the brain to activate the sneeze reflex. Some sources say sneezing at least four times a day has particular health benefits.

Different cultures have varying perspectives on sneezing. The Japanese believed that one sneeze means people are saying good things about you; two sneezes in a row means people are saying bad things about you; three sneezes in a row is a sign that someone is in love with you or you may fall in love soon. However, if a cat sneezes three times, your whole family will come down with a cold!

In most Asian cultures, the practice of responding to another person's sneeze does not exist. The practice of bowing, rather than hand shaking, proved effective in health management.

In many places, there is a strong link with divine protection from sneezing. In the 14th century, Pope Gregory VII asked that ‘God Bless You,’ become a short prayer to be said after every sneeze to protect the person against the plague. Some believed this was a safeguard against the devil stealing one’s soul. In many Western cultures, the terms ‘Bless You’ and the German word Gesundheit (meaning good health to you) are used.

Come the 21st Century, the point of focus in every place and space in the world is taking responsibility for your own sneezing — particularly in managing any possible ramifications of the Autosomal Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst (ACHOO) syndrome (the photic sneeze reflex).
To help stop the spread of germs, the best-case scenario is sneeze into a tissue, throw it out, and immediately wash your hands. The second-best option (for when you are caught tissue-less) is to sneeze into your upper sleeve or even in or around the inside of your shirt collar. Anywhere but your hands.


Remember to wash your hands after coughing or sneezing:

  • Wash with soap and water. Improved hand hygiene is one of the most important steps to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. This tried and true method is most effective in dealing with variations of the Corona Virus including Covid-19.
  • If soap and water are unavailable, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to clean hands.

Will the current outbreak of Covid 19 forever change the way we interact and function in the modern world? One US Professor of Pathology James Robb offers some suggestions that could become the ‘norm’ in the future.

  1. NO HANDSHAKING! Use a fist bump, slight bow, or even foot tap.
  2. Use ONLY your knuckle to touch light switches, elevator buttons and the like. When filling up your vehicle with petrol, lift the dispenser with a paper towel.
  3. Open any door with your closed fist or hip - do not grasp the handle with your hand, unless there is no other way to open the door. This is especially important on bathroom and commercial/public doors.

Humans have proven themselves resilient and adaptable. Rather than be obsessed, follow common sense and hygiene best practice. In addition, rely on information sources that are trustworthy and credible.