What’s happening? Sometimes a harbinger of illness, sometimes just a funny/annoying/necessary fact of life, this tiny interior explosion, like a cough, begins with an intake of air and the shutting of your vocal chords. But this time, when they release, the tongue and the uvula (that dangly thing at the back of your throat) block the air from coming out of the mouth, so it comes out of your nasal passages instead. And with it comes whatever secretions and germs are standing in the way.
Why is your body doing it? Just as a cough keeps the riffraff out of your airway, a sneeze kicks out the would-be invaders of your nose: pollen, bacteria, viruses, and dust. “It’s your body’s way of keeping the nasal passages clear and the sinuses sterile,” says Tylor. But there are other reasons your body may squeak out a sneeze. For instance, though doctors don’t entirely know why, you sometimes sneeze when you look at a bright light such as the sun (a response known as a photic sneeze reflex).
What should you do? Well, don’t sneeze with abandon into a crowd—you’ll be spraying germs. Instead, sneeze into your elbow, sleeve, or a tissue, and then wash your hands or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer directly afterward. Tylor says there is usually no harm in stifling a sneeze, but given that this is your body’s way of clearing out something harmful, it is best to let nature take its course. Blowing your nose frequently when you have a cold will cut down on your body’s need to release the irritants. If your sneezes are associated with fever, chills, muscle aches, or a cough, you may have a cold or even the flu and might want to give your doc a call. Sneezes that come on seasonally or when there is a change in the climate and are accompanied by itching eyes or clear nasal drainage are more likely due to allergies, in which case your doctor can prescribe a medication to keep them under control.