The Risks of Suppressing Sneezes: Is It Bad for Your Health?

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be tempted to stifle your sneezes in order to not be shunned in public. Sneezing is a natural involuntary response, and holding in a sneeze can actually be harmful. This article will discuss what a sneeze is, why we sneeze, how to sneeze around others, and what happens when you hold in your sneeze.

Key takeaways:


A sneeze is a protective reflex that helps rid the nasal airway of foreign invaders. This can be dust, bacteria, smoke, pollen, mold, or just about anything that isn’t the air we breathe. The sneeze prevents these foreign bodies from entering your airways and starting an infection.

A sneeze can reach up to 100 miles per hour. Before a sneeze, the body increases the pressure in the lungs, sinuses, and nasal cavity. This pressure build-up is released when you sneeze, and it should shoot out any foreign bodies your body is trying to rid of.

This trigger comes from a stimulation of the trigeminal nerve, which is one of the cranial nerves in the face that goes to the brain. When triggered, you take a deep breath, increase the pressure in your face and lungs, then let out a sneeze.

Sneezing is involuntary, a reflexive action to clear out your open passages from germs. If you need to sneeze but, for some reason, can’t, you can try a few things to force yourself:

  • Tickle your nose with a tissue
  • Look at a bright light
  • Tweeze nasal hairs
  • Tilt your head backward
  • Pluck eyebrow hair
  • Sniff strong spices or perfumes
  • Massage your nose

Sneezing etiquette

If you need to sneeze, go ahead and sneeze. It is better to let it out than to hold it in. While around others, you should not openly sneeze on people or items around you. You can take these steps to prevent the spread of germs to others:

  1. If you have a tissue near you, grab it and sneeze into it by covering your nose and your mouth.
  2. If you cannot reach a tissue in time, sneeze into your arm, covering your nose and mouth.
  3. You should not use your hands to cover your mouth and nose while you sneeze.
  4. After you sneeze, immediately wash all surfaces, including your hands and arms, with soap and water.

Suppressing your sneeze

To be polite, you may be tempted to hold in a sneeze while around other people. While sneezing may spread germs, it can be harmful to hold it in as it creates pressure build-up. When this pressure isn't released, it has the potential to injure certain areas of the body.

Eardrum rupture. If you hold in a sneeze, you will be susceptible to rupturing your eardrum. The high-pressure build-up prior to a sneeze also builds up behind your ears, specifically the middle ear and the eardrum. When pressure builds up in this area, it can rupture your eardrum, leading to a loss of hearing.

Ear infection. Holding in a sneeze may also lead to an ear infection. A sneeze prevents bacteria from entering the body via the nose or respiratory tract. When stifled, the pressure from the sneeze can push air into the middle ear. The air and mucous can spread the bacteria from the nose or upper respiratory airways to the ears, leading to infection.

Ruptured blood vessels. When preventing yourself from sneezing, it is possible to rupture small blood vessels in the face, such as the eyes, nose, or ears. This may cause you to get a bloody nose, bloody drainage in the ears, or blood in the eyes.

Brain aneurysm. The pressure from holding your sneeze in can also add pressure on the brain and rupture the blood vessels there. When a blood vessel ruptures in the brain, it is called a brain aneurysm and can lead to serious complications.

Lung collapse. While rare, your diaphragm can become injured by the pressure of holding back a sneeze when the pressure is not released.

Broken ribs. The high pressure in the lungs can sometimes cause your lungs to expand quickly and the force can break your ribs.

Treating sneezing

You can do a few things if you feel a sneeze coming and want to stop it without preventing injury:

  • Blow your nose
  • Say something random like 'cucumber'
  • Press your tongue to the roof of your mouth
  • Shade your eyes from light

Sneezing is a way to prevent foreign materials from entering your body, like pollen and bacteria. If you sneeze frequently, you may have something else, such as allergies. You may treat your allergy symptoms and avoid your allergy triggers to help you sneeze less.

Some people sneeze as a trigger for certain items, such as flour, perfume, spicy foods, and bright lights. Knowing what triggers your sneezes is important so you can avoid them. Sneezing can also be a part of being sick, such as having a cold, flu, or COVID-19. In this case, the best way to treat sneezing is by treating the illness and its symptoms.

Sneezing is an automatic reflex that cannot be helped. If you need to sneeze, it is better to just let yourself. Trying to stop your sneeze can harm you and lead to possible health complications in the long run. If you sneeze, take the appropriate steps to prevent the spread of germs to others.


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