When a floating dust particle or wayward grain of pollen waft their way into my sinuses, a predictable physiological response occurs: I scream bloody murder through my nose in the form of a massive, cacophonous sneeze.
The lights flicker and my cats scamper as the nasal tidal wave erupts in a flash of aural mayhem. My wife thinks I’m being melodramatic; I routinely insist to her that my sonic boom sneezes are involuntary and completely outside the bounds of bodily control.
But who’s right? Loud sneezers co-exist with their more discreet counterparts, whose dainty little achoos have all the grace and composure of a ballet dancer. Are my whiplash-inducing nasal bursts a product of my personality, or are they a cruel consequence of my genetic makeup?
Fortunately, these questions are all somewhat easily answered. Let’s demystify some of the conventional wisdom on sneezing loudly.
First of all, what is a sneeze?
A fantastic question, and one that likely goes overlooked as human beings navigate much more important life challenges. The website Live Science distilled the phenomenon quite vividly back in 2010:
It starts with a tickle in the nose. Something maybe a piece of dust or a speck of pollen irritates the mucous lining of the upper respiratory tract and sets nerve endings jangling. The nerves flash a signal to the most primitive part of the brain, the brainstem, which springs into action, commanding the lungs to inhale deeply. The vocal cords snap shut, the eyes close and air explodes out of the mouth and nose: ah-choo!
Every sneeze is different
Add sneezes to the great pantheon of entirely idiosyncratic bodily functions, because no two sneezes are exactly alike. They’re a personal quirk on par with laughter, farting, and belching.
As Alan Hirsch, a neurologist, psychiatrist, and founder of Chicago’s Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation told NBC News in 2013:
Sneezes are like laughter. Some [laughs] are loud, some are soft. And it’s similar with sneezing. It will often be the same from youth onward in terms of what it sounds like.
Your sneezing style is at least partly physical
Many people in my life have attributed my mortar-shell sneezes to an obnoxious need for attention, but it turns out that they are only partly correct.
As Erich Voigt, an otolaryngologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at NYU Langone Medical Center told Refinery 29 in 2017: “Sneezes are very strong reflexes to clear the upper airway and are often spontaneous and involuntary, thus we cannot control the force.”
The volume and delivery of your sneeze is somewhat governed by the size of their body and muscles, Voigt said, but most importantly, it’s a product of whether the flurry of pressure escapes from the nose or mouth.
The doctor explained:
Some people let the force of the sneeze come through the nose, while others will allow the force out via the mouth, and for some it’s out of the nose and mouth. Each of these types will produce differing noises.
There’s a bit more to the relationship between sneezing, the body, and sneeze-volume. Professor Richard Harvey of Australia’s St. Vincents and Macquarie University Hospitals explained to the Australia Broadcasting Corporation last year that the “loudness of a person’s sneeze depends on their lung capacity, size, and how long they hold their breath for.”
Sneezing is also a reflection of personality
If you sneeze loudly, this is what your detractors will latch onto. It is the hill they will die on, if you don’t blow them into oblivion with a fatal sneeze beforehand.
As Dr. Hirsch explained to NBC: The volume of a sneeze is “more of a psychological thing and represents the underlying personality or character structure” of the person sneezing.
After all, you might not be able to control the exact amount of air you draw in prior to sneezing, or how long you hold your breath for, but you can ultimately make choices that could mitigate the volume of a sneeze. Australia’s Dr. Harvey explained that the mouth ultimately allows for louder sneezes, while the nose tends to stifle the noise: “If you sneeze through your mouth it will be louder, but if you sneeze through your nose it will be wetter, messier.”
That said, it’s important not to sabotage your sneeze. Holding your mouth and nose when sneezing can lead to serious medical conditions like brain aneurysms and ruptured ear drums.
So if someone gives you a hard time about sneezing loud, tell them to deal with it. Putting up with a racket seems a lot more reasonable than asking someone to stifle their sneeze, which could put them in the hospital.