Why you should never stifle a sneeze

Careless sneezing
CC BY 2.0 Archives New Zealand

Recent news that a man ruptured his throat from holding in a sneeze is a good reminder to free the sneeze.

It sounds way more urban myth than BBC news story; more grim tale from grandma than BMJ Case Reports, but sure enough, a 34-year-old man in Leicester, England, held in a sneeze and blew out his throat.

While rare, doctors warn that clamping one’s nose and mouth shut to stifle a sneeze can do serious damage. And given the prodigious velocity with which a sneeze can travel, it actually makes sense, though we’d probably like to think that our throat would be strong enough to contain such things.

BBC reports on the story, noting that the man felt a "popping" sensation in his neck when it happened, which was immediately followed by pain and trouble swallowing and talking.

“When the doctors checked him over they found he had swelling and tenderness around his throat and neck,” writes BBC. “An X-ray revealed air escaping from his windpipe into the soft tissue of his neck through the rupture. The man had to be fed by a tube for the next seven days to allow time for the tissues to heal.”

While the man made a full recovery – after spending a week in the hospital – it sounds like a somewhat ghastly injury, and one that is easily preventable. Just let that sneeze out. Constrained sneezes can also damage ears or “even rupture a brain aneurysm,” says the BBC.

So free the sneeze, just remember proper sneeze etiquette. The CDC notes that “Serious respiratory illnesses like influenza, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), whooping cough, and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) are spread by coughing or sneezing.” To help stop the spread of germs, they recommend covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you sneeze; if you don’t have a tissue, sneeze into your upper sleeve, not your hands.

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