Why is Sneezing a Reflex? How Does it Happen?

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Not sure if anyone else thinks about this quite as much as I do, but I can’t help but wonder every time I sneeze…why it happens??? I realize it is a type of reflex in the human body, but why? According to How Stuff Works, this reflex is purported to serve as a defense mechanism against different bacteria and viruses. You sneeze when when someone triggers or irritates the nasal passageways. I bet you didn’t know that another name for “sneeze” can be “sternutation“! (Kids Health)

Like all reflexes, theres is a biological aspect to it:

There is what’s called the “reflex arc” which consists of a receptor, a sensory nerve, integration center, a motor nerve and an effector (HowStuffWorks). Each of these serve their own purpose. The receptors are what detect the irritant in your nose. Irritants include things like dust, dander, pepper or unusual smells; even “viruses that attack the mucous membranes.” (HowStuffWorks)

These nerves carry the irritant or impulses to what is called the “sneezing center” (we have one of those?) in the brain which then continues to the facial nerve and other nerves that lead to the lungs and diaphragm which all lead up to the climax of the simple sneeze. Fun fact: the tiny particles flying out of your nose/mouth during a sneeze can travel up to 100 mph!

Once the diaphragm moves or opens quickly, forcing one to take a deep breath, muscles in your chest compress causing the event of a sneeze– air leaving your nose and mouth rather abruptly.

Interestingly enough, there is what is called a called “photic (light) sneezer” who are people that sneeze when exposed to bright light. About every 1 out of 3 people are considered photic sneezers and it is an inherited trait.

Although this topic is not necessarily something that requires a controlled or randomized experiment with different variables, I saw it as an interesting topic that perhaps not everybody is aware of. Therefore, I decided to shed light on the topic of the process behind the human sneeze. Well…yes, animals can sneeze too.





3 thoughts on “Why is Sneezing a Reflex? How Does it Happen?

  1. Brendan Feifer

    Hi Victoria,
    One of the scariest feelings in the world is sneezing while driving, and after reading this post I’m glad to see sneezing is simply reflex mechanism that serves as a contour for defense against nasty bacteria and viruses. I know that researching a study on such a topic is challenging, but why not do a study yourself?

    Randomly allocate people amongst two groups; a control and experimental. The control group parallels with a null hypothesis by doing nothing, while have the experimental group be put into sneezing situations such as rubbing a feather under their nose. Use this as the basis for an experiment to further measure how intuitive a sneeze really is! Just an idea, I really enjoyed your post however!

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