Life's Little Mysteries

Why Does Pepper Make Us Sneeze?

Of all the common kitchen items and certainly those ingredients used in cooking one spice is notorious for causing sneezing fits more than any other. Not salt, not paprika, not nutmeg, but good, old-fashioned pepper. Why pepper?

There are two main reasons why pepper is particularly sneeze-inducing. One reason is that it is often used when finely ground, and like any dust or tiny particle in the air, it can stimulate nerve cells inside the nose and trigger the sneeze reflex to forcefully clear out the offensive particulate.

The second and less obvious reason is the chemical composition of pepper. Pepper, regardless of the variety, contains a chemical called piperine, which gives the plant its distinctive spicy flavor .

"Piperine acts as an irritant if it gets into the nose. It irritates the nerve endings inside the mucous membrane. This stimulation will cause you to sneeze," according to the Library of Congress. The same characteristics that make pepper spicy to the tongue also make pepper irritating to the nose, and the result is sneezing.

Interestingly, nasal irritation is not the only thing that causes sneezing. In people who experience a phenomenon called photo sneeze reflex, bright light or sunlight in the eyes can trigger a sneezing fit.

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Benjamin Radford
Live Science Contributor
Benjamin Radford is the Bad Science columnist for Live Science. He covers pseudoscience, psychology, urban legends and the science behind "unexplained" or mysterious phenomenon. Ben has a master's degree in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology. He is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and has written, edited or contributed to more than 20 books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries," "Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore" and “Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits,” out in fall 2017. His website is