Life's Little Mysteries

Does Your Heart Really Stop When You Sneeze?

The real deal: This is what a sneeze looks like. And now you know why health officials say two of the best ways to prevent flu spread are to sneeze into your arm and wash your hand a lot, because other people don't sneeze into their arms. (Image credit: Andrew Davidhazy/RIT)

The idea that a sneeze stops your heart is up there with the ancient belief that a big ah-choo blows your soul right out of your nose . Both are myths with murky origins, and neither makes much sense. Sneezing or, if you like to impress your friend with big words, sternutation is a reflex centered in a section of the brainstem called the medulla. When something tickles the upper lining inside the nose, nerves carry the signal to the medulla, which then triggers the eyes to close, the chest to contract, and the lungs to expel a burst of air at speeds approaching 100 mph.

But one thing the brain doesn't do is signal the heart to stop. It keeps beating no matter how hard you sneeze . So sternutate away, but please, remember to cover your mouth first. That helps prevent the spread of disease, and besides, we wouldn't want your soul to get out.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.