The Purpose of Sneezing

Birmingham – The purpose of sneezing, self evidently, is to dislodge irritating particles from the lining of the nose – and very effectively, too. It starts with a series of inspirations that fill the lungs with large volumes of air. Then the combination of their elastic recoil and the action of the muscles in the chest wall hurtle the air out again at a speed of one hundred feet per second to a distance of six feet or more.

These rapid fluctuations of pressure within the chest can sometimes have the most adverse of consequences – causing, as recently reported, 52-year-old solicitor Veronica Kenny to fracture her spine. The resulting pain and lack of mobility prevented her from working until an operation to fit a supportive metal cage put her back on her feet again.

 Sneezing is also a well known, if rare, precipitant of a stroke and has been reported to cause retinal detachment and miscarriages. For the same reason the great seventeenth century physician and discoverer of the circulation of the blood William Harvey would induce sneezing in women in obstructed labor to accelerate the process of childbirth. Called to a woman who had “fallen into a swoon” he thrust a feather with strong sneezing powder towards her nostrils. “By this she was aroused. As often as I applied the feather to her, her delivery was advanced – and finally a healthy living child was born.”

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