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What Science Tells Us About Quirky Sneezers

Can Bright Lights Really Make People Sneeze?

I remember a conversation that happened among some teammates on my high school soccer team when a girl commented that she needed to sneeze, but it wouldn't come out. Another girl quickly suggested that if she looked at the sun, it would make her sneeze.

I could certainly understand the uncomfortable tingly sensation of needing to sneeze and the awkwardness it can cause not knowing when the sneeze is actually going to come out, but I couldn't understand why anybody in their right mind would believe that looking at the sun could cause you to sneeze.

In my mind, this girl's suggestion was absolutely ridiculous. I never thought much more about it until I discovered some quirky sneeze triggers in myself and did a little bit of research on the cause of my sneezes.

That's when I came across the photic sneeze reflex (PSR), also known as ACHOO (autosomal dominant compulsive helio-ophthalmic outbursts of sneezing) syndrome.

Apparently, between 18% and 35% of people actually suffer from this syndrome that causes them to sneeze when they experience changes from dull environmental light to brighter environmental light.

What Is ACHOO Syndrome?

This syndrome is hereditary, and interestingly enough, within families, people who suffer from ACHOO Syndrome will often sneeze the same amount of times when exposed to a trigger. For example, everyone in the family might sneeze three times when exposed to bright light.

If you have the photic sneeze reflex, your children have a 50% chance of being quirky sneezers as well.

It turns out that those same people who experience uncontrollable sneezing episodes when exposed to bright lights are likely to be triggered by exposure to several other environmental factors as well, some of which are the foods that trigger my sneezes.

Dark chocolate (70% or above) is often a sneeze trigger for people who suffer from ACHOO Syndrome

Dark chocolate (70% or above) is often a sneeze trigger for people who suffer from ACHOO Syndrome

What Else Triggers ACHOO Syndrome?

It was a few years ago that I suddenly developed an uncontrollable habit of sneezing whenever I would suck on a breath mint.

It was like clockwork. If I put a Tic Tac in my mouth, I was guaranteed to sneeze. When this first started, it led to several embarrassing incidents of unexpectedly sneezing with my mouth open and inadvertently spitting whatever mint I had in my mouth out onto the floor.

Now I know what's going to happen, so I just pay special attention to keeping my mouth closed, or more often, I just avoid mints in general because I've had so many accidental embarrassing mishaps.

A month or so ago, I started to experience the same phenomenon when I would eat my favorite 90% dark chocolate.

I became nervous that perhaps I had developed some strange kind of allergy to mints and dark chocolate, and there was no way I wanted to give up my dark chocolate.

I decided to do a little bit of research, and that's how I discovered ACHOO Syndrome. It turns out that if you Google search "why do I sneeze when I eat chocolate," you learn about a plethora of similarly quirky sneeze triggers.

People who suffer from ACHOO Syndrome are often triggered by:

  • light
  • dark chocolate (the darker it is, the more likely it will cause sneezing)
  • mints
  • cough syrup
  • red wine
  • loved ones (not as common, but not unheard of)

What Does Science Tell Us About Quirky Sneezers?

The truth is that aside from statistics about how many people suffer from ACHOO Syndrome and how it's hereditary, science hasn't been able to figure out very much about why some people sneeze uncontrollably when exposed to these random triggers.

There are some hypotheses out there, but none of them have been proven as fact.

Here are two theories about what causes this quirky sneezing:

  • Some people say the sneezing is triggered by over stimulation of the optic nerve (that helps you see), which is in close proximity to the trigeminal nerve (which causes sneezing). This makes sense for those people who are triggered by changes in the brightness of the lighting they are exposed to, but doesn't really explain why people would be triggered by foods.
  • Some people describe these sneezes as an orgasm of the face. It's as if the nerves in your face are experiencing so much pleasure that it has to release somehow. You can see where this idea might come from with chocolate lovers sneezing in response to something as pleasurable as eating their favorite chocolate and with some people even known to be triggered by the presence of a lover.

Neither of these theories has been proven through scientific methods, so for now, your guess about what causes these quirky sneezes is as good as mine.

What we do know is that these sneezes are not caused by allergies or illnesses, so you don't have to avoid the sun, your lover, or your favorite chocolate if you suffer from ACHOO Syndrome.

Sneezing can be a hazard for people who are driving in areas that transition from dim to bright light such as tunnels

Sneezing can be a hazard for people who are driving in areas that transition from dim to bright light such as tunnels

A Few Cautions for Quirky Sneezers

As you may have noticed, sneezing at inopportune times can be dangerous (aside from being embarrassing), particularly for people who are driving cars or flying planes.

If you know you are prone to ACHOO Syndrome and are triggered by light, it's a good idea to wear a hat with a brim or sunglasses to shade the eyes from drastic changes in brightness.

Obviously, if your triggers are more food related, you should avoid the foods that make you sneeze if you are in control of a vehicle or handling any heavy equipment.

Most people don't think that sneezing is a big deal, but when it happens uncontrollably while you are doing something important, it can be a serious matter.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.


Rachel L Alba from Every Day Cooking and Baking on October 11, 2015:

Hi Becca, this is going to sound really crazy but when I clean my right ear with a q-tip, it makes me sneeze. I don't know why, it just does. Also really bright lights do to. I guess I'm one of those quirky sneezers. lol This was a very interesting subject for a hub.

Blessings to you.

Rebecca Young (author) from Renton, WA on October 10, 2015:

That's a good question. I'd never heard that before, but it's worth researching. I'll have to study up on that a little bit and report back.

James from The Eastern Bypass on October 10, 2015:

Your article is very educative. I never knew anything to do with ACHOO syndrome. At least I can pass the information to people who sneeze each and every time. Is it true that all the organs of the body stop functioning at the moment of sneezing?