Life's Little Mysteries

Is It Safe to Hold in a Sneeze?

Most injuries from stifling a sneeze are just plain old bad luck. Still, if you're about to sneeze, it's better to just go ahead and ah-choo!

"I wouldn't recommend suppressing a sneeze by any method, whether by pinching one's nose or consciously sneezing into a closed throat," said Alan Wild, a head and neck surgeon and assistant professor of otolaryngology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

It's important to note the difference between restraining the urge to sneeze and trying to stop a sneeze in progress.

"Rubbing the nose, breathing forcefully through the nose, and pressing on the upper lip below the nose may relieve the urge to sneeze, but once the sneeze starts, it is usually best to just let it go," Wild said.

So what might happen if you don't follow the doctor's advice? Probably nothing.

"The injuries that might occur are flukes or are related to some underlying anatomical oddity."

But if you happen to be one of these unlucky cases, Wild said a holding in a sneeze may lead to several unhealthy situations. A blocked sneeze could:

  • cause injury to the diaphragm
  • break a blood vessel in the white of the eye, causing bruising of the white part around the iris
  • force air up the Eustachian tubes in your ears and cause a ruptured ear drum or an injury to the inner ear that could lead to vertigo or hearing loss
  • weaken a blood vessel in the brain and cause it to rupture due to the momentary elevation of blood pressure

"The risk of an injury is low but you might just be the unlucky one," Wild said. "Some also are concerned that stifling the sneeze is just a temporary outcome that whatever provoked the sneeze is still present and will cause another sneeze shortly."

Some people may suffer from aggressive sneezes, which can cause another set of health problems.

  • A violent sneeze by someone who had sinus surgery can push air into the space around the eye and cause it to bulge, or push air into the brain cavity and cause an intense headache or even stroke
  • A violent sneeze could cause a neck injury from a sudden extension of the neck
  • A violent sneeze can cause momentary incontinence

Some of our sneezes still puzzle doctors. Most believe the sneeze reflex is important for getting rid of irritants like particles of pollution or allergens from our noses. But not all sneezes are related to things in the nose.

"Many people sneeze when exposed to bright sunlight, while some people sneeze during sex, after administration of certain intravenous anesthetics, eating too much or with certain neurological diseases such as epilepsy," Wild said. "This type of sneezing is poorly understood."

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Corey Binns lives in Northern California and writes about science, health, parenting, and social change. In addition to writing for Live Science, she's contributed to publications including Popular Science,, Scholastic, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as others. She's also produced stories for NPR’s Science Friday and Sundance Channel. She studied biology at Brown University and earned a Master's degree in science journalism from NYU. The Association of Health Care Journalists named her a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow in 2009. She has chased tornadoes and lived to tell the tale.