ℹ️ You’re reading Quartz Essentials: quick, engaging outlines of the most important topics affecting the global economy.
- 1 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 1
Whether it’s from allergies, dust, or a cold, sneezes are a universal experience. The way we express them, though, is very much dependent on the language we speak. “Achoo!” is the verbalization favored by those who speak English, while “Atchoum!” is typically used by French speakers. People whose first language is Japanese will exclaim “Hakashun!”—and those are just a few examples.
Nobody plans the noise they’re going to produce when a tickle hits those nasal membranes. Behind the scenes, however, your brain makes a split-second decision based on your cultural norms. We know this because deaf people don’t say anything when they sneeze: According to the BBC and partially deaf journalist Charlie Swinbourne, they just take “a heavy breath as the deep pre-sneeze breath is taken, then a sharper, faster sound of air being released.”
- 2 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 2
10: Cars damaged when a California driver had a sneezing fit in 2012
33%: Share of the population affected by photic sneeze reflex, also known as Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst (ACHOO), the condition that causes sneezing due to sudden sunlight changes
14: Inches above food that a “sneeze guard” must be placed at a buffet, according to the National Sanitation Foundation International
200 ft (61 m): Distance a sneeze can travel
3,118,00+: Views of a video featuring a mama panda startled by her baby sneezing
- 3 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 3
That sneeze? It might feel like a small explosion in your nasal cavity, but what it unleashes into the air has a name: a multiphase turbulent buoyant cloud. In 2014, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a paper (pdf) in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics that studied how small droplets of saliva and mucus disperse in the air after a sneeze. They found that rather than acting as discrete objects, the droplets were bound together in a gas cloud that could reach much further than previously believed. It looks like this, and “if you forget the fact that it’s a sneeze, it’s actually a pretty beautiful process,” researcher Lydia Bourouiba told Science Friday.
“If you ignored the presence of the gas cloud, your first guess would be that larger drops go farther than the smaller ones, and travel at most a couple of meters,” John Bush, one of the paper’s authors and a professor of applied mathematics at the school, told MIT News. “But by elucidating the dynamics of the gas cloud, we have shown that there’s a circulation within the cloud—the smaller drops can be swept around and resuspended by the eddies within a cloud, and so settle more slowly. Basically, small drops can be carried a great distance by this gas cloud while the larger drops fall out.”
Those smaller droplets spread far enough to get into ventilation systems and drift across the room. So even if you’re ensconced in a cubicle (or the spare bedroom), cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze, please.
- 4 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 4
77 AD: In Natural History, Pliny wonders “Why it is that we salute a person when he sneezes?”
750: The origin of the phrase “God bless you” may have begun, according to some accounts, when Pope Gregory I believed that a sneeze heralded the onset of the bubonic plague.
19th century: The German word gesundheit meaning “health” gains traction in the US as a response to a sneeze; it falls out of favor in World War I.
1945: Britain’s health ministry starts issuing a series of amusing films to educate people on the risk of spreading disease via sneezes.
1949: The US Department of Agriculture recommends that cities plant male trees to prevent seeds from littering the street—thus beginning a flood of allergy-aggravating pollinators.
1981: The record for the longest sneezing episode is set by Donna Griffiths of Worcestershire, England, who sneezed once a minute for 976 days.
2009: US health and human services secretary Kathleen Sebelius chides NBC’s Chuck Todd when he sneezes without covering his mouth at a press conference. Even the Sesame Street character “Elmo knows how to sneeze,” she says.
- 5 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 5
“Aim low, off the windshield, because it can mess up your view and there’s no way to clear it.”
— NASA astronaut David Wolf, explaining how to sneeze in space
- 6 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 6
Bored of “bless you?” Here are some of the more interesting cultural responses to a sneeze from around the world:
Vietnam: Com muối, meaning “rice with salt” (said to children)
Serbia: Pis maco, or “go away, kitten” (also said to children)
Turkish: Cok yaşa, rahat yaşa or “live long and prosper” (yes, really)
French: Á tes souhaits, or “to your wishes”
Iceland: There are different responses for consecutive sneezes, starting with “God help you,” followed by “strengthen you,” then “and support.”
Latin America: There are consecutive responses in some areas here too, including “salud, dinero, amor” (“health, money, love”).
The word “sneeze,” incidentally, arises from a mistake. It was originally “fnese,” and the similarity between the “f” and the way a long “s” were written in medieval manuscripts led to its evolution.
- 7 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 7
On Sept. 20, 1958, a 29-year-old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was signing copies of his first book at a department store in Harlem. Posing as an admirer, Izola Ware Curry approached King and, after confirming his identity, plunged a 7-inch steel letter opener into his chest. Removing the weapon took doctors hours of intense surgery; the tip of the weapon had been so close to King’s aorta that a mere sneeze would have killed him instantly. After hearing of this horrifying detail, a young student sent King a letter: “I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”
In his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, the day before he was assassinated, King responded to the decade-old letter:
Unable to import block of type BLOCKQUOTE. Sorry! Delete me or seek out the truth.
- 8 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 9
You may wake yourself up talking, snoring, moving, laughing, or even walking—but you’ll probably never wake yourself up sneezing. According to Popular Science’s interview with sleep researcher Steven Shea, director of the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences at Oregon Health and Science University, a sleep-sneeze is a scientific impossibility. Of the hundreds of people Shea has observed for sleep studies, “I’ve never witnessed anyone sneezing,” he reports. “But, I’ve never provoked them, either.”
Shea has multiple theories as to why shut-eye precludes us from sneezing, but perhaps the strongest is related to the stages of non-REM and REM sleep. During non-REM sleep, he says, minor stimuli doesn’t get through to the brain. “The thalamus and the cerebral cortex are in this dance where they’re controlling each other, and it’s sort of blocking the sensory input.” However, strong stimuli could certainly wake up a heavy sleeper, who might then sneeze in response to the sleep-stopping stimuli.
REM sleep, Shea believes, prevents sneezes in a different way. That’s when we dream, so our brains induce partial paralysis to prevent us from acting out our dreams. (That partial paralysis doesn’t always work—hence, sleepwalking.) This state probably includes paralysis of some of the muscles that induce sneezing.
- 9 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 10
Sneezing might not exactly be a big box-office draw these days, but in 1894, people were riveted. According to the Library of Congress, this Edison Kinetoscopic Record is the earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture and features Fred Ott, an Edison employee known for his silly sneezes.
- 10 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 11
African wild dog packs vote by sneezing.
- 11 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 12
Contrary to popular belief, your eyeballs won’t pop out of their sockets. We’re sure this isn’t one you want to test at home yourself, so luckily, the MythBusters tested it for us. It’s doubtful that they were too concerned about actually losing any peepers: Your eye sockets and nose aren’t connected, and there’s no way for the pressure from a sneeze to move behind your eyeball.
And, as Discovery points out, if we were relying on nothing but the thin skin of our weak eyelids to keep the power of a sneeze from combusting out of our eyes at high speed, we’d all be in trouble. The reason our eyes shut when we sneeze is a little less terrifying—it’s simply a reflex.
So go ahead and try to sneeze with your eyes open—but whatever you do, don’t try to suppress a sneeze like this 34-year-old Brit. After preventing a sneeze from exiting his nose or mouth, the man experienced a painful popping sensation in his throat and got himself to the ER, posthaste. Doctors discovered that the force of the sneeze had punctured the man’s pharynx, which allowed air bubbles into his neck and the space between his lungs. After seven days in the hospital and an unpleasant experience with a feeding tube, he’d learned a hard lesson about sneeze suppression.
- 12 of 13
Quartz Obsession — Sneezes — Card 13
Pollen and dust aren’t the only culprits behind sneezing attacks. Our bodies sometimes interpret harmless stimuli for threatening irritants that need to be removed from our bodies, triggering sneezes for seemingly silly reasons, from sunshine to sex.
- 13 of 13
- FIZZLED OUTWhy the hard seltzer craze has endedQuartz • August 3, 2022
- RUNNING UP THE CHARTSHow much is Kate Bush making from “Running Up That Hill”?Quartz • June 27, 2022
- GENUINE ARTICLEBeReal is the social-media app for people who hate social mediaQuartz • August 2, 2022
- TRAVEL APARTHEIDHow powerful is your country’s passport?Quartz • January 16, 2022
- HUHThe weird contradictions rendering the US economy inexplicableQuartz • August 2, 2022
- Winning hearts and mindsThe Zelenskyys' Vogue cover story is a brilliant war tacticQuartz • July 29, 2022
- MakeoverYes, Abercrombie is back and its new look involves a lot of going out dressesQuartz • July 28, 2022
- CUTTING EDGEThe missile that killed Ayman al-Zawahiri has a Warren Buffett connectionQuartz • August 2, 2022