Whenever I attend a wedding, I have the fear of being the wailing baby interrupting the solemnity of the couples’ vows. Only instead of crying, I’m scared of sneezing. Three, four, five, a dozen high-pitched sneezes in a spastic fit. Pathogens fleeing from my nose, as everyone turns to stare at the maniac who’s not just interrupting the ceremony, but infecting it.
Before people even know my name, they know me as the girl who sneezes in multiples. I start between 9 and 10 a.m. and keep going all day. Classmates log how often it happens, professors gently suggest that I visit an ear, nose and throat specialist.
The social dictionary website Urban Dictionary has a word for this affliction: sneezure, defined as “an uncontrollable fit of sneezing.” And while otolaryngologist Madeleine Schaberg, a specialist in rhinology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, can explain the blow by blow behind a sneeze, medical science is stumped by its frequency.
“They don’t really know why people sneeze multiple times,” said Schaberg in an interview.
Here is the anatomy of a sneeze, according to the doctor: An irritated nose releases the neurotransmitter histamine. A signal is then transmitted to the brain by the trigeminal nerve, the largest cranial nerve. The brain then triggers the diaphragm to contract, causing the larynx to open; the sneezer sucks in a lot of air and expels it rapidly – and voilà, a sneeze is born. The Library of Congress (a seminal source on sneezing, for some reason) estimates the speed of a sneeze to be up to 100 miles per hour, with the spray radiating up to five feet.
Sneezes come in four varieties. The first is triggered by irritants such as dust; the second, involuntary sneezes, happen when the nerve reacts to an outside stimulus. Then there is the rarer psychological variety, which occurs when a person’s awkwardness is displayed with a sneeze instead of throat-clearing. Most unusual is a seizure that would take Dr. House to diagnose, as it manifests itself as a sneezing fit. “It’s extremely uncommon,” assured Schaberg to her fretful interviewer.
The longest recorded sneezing fit was endured by then 12-year-old Donna Griffiths, of Worcestershire, England, who began sneezing on Jan. 13, 1981, and kept going for 978 straight days. “She sneezed an estimated million times in the first 365 days and achieved her first sneeze-free day on 16 Sept. 1983,” confirmed a spokeswoman for the Guinness World Book of Records via email.
There are others out there who can forgo daily situps due to the ab workouts they get from their sneezing.
Accountant Edward Rosenthal, from Connecticut, usually sneezes in threes. “In my case it is not typically multiple times a day, or every day, but just when I do sneeze,” he said over email. He’s the only person in his family with the affliction, and was surprised recently to pull off a recent single. “A rarity,” he explained.
Zosia Hortsing likewise sneezes in threes. Often, people from cubicles far from hers either heckle her or ask if she’s all right. Her sneezing is “really loud and disruptive,” said the Vancouver government employee. Hortsing believes the cause if hereditary, as her maternal grandmother also sneezed in threes
And for as long as he can remember, 62-year-old Jim Pallett of Los Angeles has greeted the world with at least three aaah-aaah-choos. Pallett typically wakes up between 5:30 and 6 a. m., but if he sleeps later he’ll sneeze as soon as he wakes up.
This phenomenon has even rated a plot point on a “Seinfeld” episode, when Jerry and George Costanza debate how to appropriately acknowledge a “multi-sneezer.” Costanza had been dining with a couple when the wife serially sneezed. When Costanza said “bless you” and her husband didn’t, marital turmoil ensued.
Costanza defended himself saying, “Once he passes on that option, that ‘God bless you’ is up for grabs.”
“No argument,” Seinfeld replied, “unless she’s one of these multiple sneezers and he’s holding his ‘God bless you’ in abeyance until she completes the series.”
The multi-sneeze can even be life-threatening. Last November, Antonio Zamora was driving a truck in San Leandro, Calif., when he had a sneezing fit, according to a California Highway Patrol report. He veered off the road, striking a parked truck, a fence and 10 other parked vehicles from a nearby car dealership. Amazingly, no one was injured and the report said no drugs or alcohol were involved, though perhaps a dose of Allegra could have helped. Zamora could not be reached for comment.
A study released last August in the FASEB Journal for Experimental Biology looked at the molecular pathway of the sneeze and found that tissues inside the nose of people who suffer from chronic sinusitis are blunted, or not as effective at clearing pathogens out of the nose during a sneeze, explained Dr. Noam Cohen, assistant professor of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School and one of the authors of the report. The conclusion: they sneezed more.
To assess patients, Cohen uses the Sinus Nasal Olchem Test, whose apt acronym is SNOT-22. The second of the 22 questions on the test is the frequency of sneezing. “Excessive sneezing is a reflection that something is wrong in the nose,” he said.
Whether blunted nasal tissues or a deep-seated psychosis is at play, I’m enjoying the extra personal space that results after sneezing five times in a subway car. Thanks for saying Gesundheit.