We’ve all seen it: Somebody has to sneeze. They don’t want to cause a disturbance. So they do the best they can to suppress it, keeping their mouth closed and holding it in.
This is a bad idea, according to a new case report published in the British Medical Journal.1
The authors describe the case of a 34-year-old man. He tried to stifle a sneeze by pinching his nose and keeping his mouth shut. The results were disastrous.2
With nowhere to escape, the pressure ripped through the soft tissue of his throat. He blew a hole in his windpipe.3
The man said he felt a popping sensation in his neck when it happened. The pain was intense. He had a hard time speaking and swallowing.
An X-ray showed air escaping from his windpipe into the soft tissue of his neck. He was treated at Leicester Royal Infirmary in England, where he lives. He had to be put on a feeding tube for a week to give the injury time to heal.
Doctors said it’s not unusual for people to hurt themselves holding in a sneeze, although this man’s case was particularly severe.
Sneezes Spread Diseases… But Never Hold Them In
Sneezes are more powerful than you think. They move air at more than a 100 mph. When you stifle a sneeze, the pressurized air has to go somewhere.
The consequences can be a perforated eardrum, sinus damage, accidental urination, or even a brain hemorrhage. In 2004, baseball player Sammy Sosa had to go on the disabled list when he sprained a ligament in his lower back while suppressing a sneeze.4 5
Dr. Zi Yang Jiang is a head and neck surgeon at the University of Texas Health Science Center. He says when you have to sneeze, let it rip.
“The whole point of sneezing is to get something out of your body, like viruses and bacteria,” he said. “If you stop that, those may end up in the wrong part of the body.”6
The Right Way to Sneeze
With this year’s horrible flu season, there’s a whole lot of sneezing going on. And there’s a right way and wrong way to do it.
While you don’t want to suppress a sneeze, you also don’t want to spread your germs. The best way to sneeze is to do it into a tissue, throwing it away right afterward.7
If you don’t have a tissue, don’t sneeze into your hands. You’ll contaminate everything you touch. And the flu virus can survive for 24 hours on most surfaces.
Instead, sneeze into the crook of your elbow. And after the big “achoo,” wash your hands or use sanitizer.8