Well Being

Confessions of a Sneeze-Supressor: Can Holding In Your Ah-Choo Hurt You?

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photo: Thinkstock

I admit it: I hold in my sneezes. I've been doing it since I was little. I believe it stems from the fact that my father has the loudest sneeze I've ever heard. When I was a kid, my dad would sneeze in the basement and I'd be roused from slumber all the way up on the second floor. So naturally, over the years I've honed my sneeze to be as silent as possible. Sometimes people around me don't even realize that I've sneezed. (I'm that sneaky.) I'd guess that several of my co-workers think I suffer from some kind of twitch. Is this better than an obnoxiously loud sneeze? In my book, yes.

Of course, throughout my life, I've been warned by all my non-scientist family and friends about how suppressing my sneezes will kill my brain cells. I continued with my anti-sneezes anyway. But after witnessing my non-sneezes for a few months at work, Blisstree's Editor-in-Chief convinced me to do some research on the potential side effects of not spreading snot all over the place, like everyone else does. I interviewed a variety of health professionals, and got some mixed responses:

Dr. Scott E. Brunengraber, Chiropractor, New York

The chiropractic point of view is the most extreme. Apparently, when you sneeze, a significant amount of pressure is put on your body, particularly your spinal cord. When you release a sneeze properly, the pressure is pushed out of the body; but when you hold it in, your spinal cord absorbs the brunt of it. According to Dr. Brunengraber, “Muscles are contracting throughout the body, especially those in and around the spine. This can cause a vertebral disc to rupture, or if one is already injured, it can damage it further.”

Dr. Richard W. Westreich, Director, Facial Plastic Surgery Division, Long Island College Hospital, Assistant Professor, SUNY

As a surgeon specializing in facial and nasal surgeries, I'd guess that Dr. Westreich knows his noses. “Holding in your sneezes isn't particularly harmful,” he says. “Sometimes discomfort is felt in the ears if air goes up the Eustachian tube. It's also within the realm of possibility to force enough air into the middle ear space and, potentially pop your ear drum. However, I have never heard of that happening in an actual patient.”

Dr. Murray Grossan, Ear, Nose, and Throat Specialist, Cedars-Sinai Hospital, Los Angeles, California

ENTs certainly see their fair share of sneezing snafus. Here's what Dr. Grossan had to say: “Sneezing is your method of removing dust when your nasal cilia fail to do the job. You sneeze with a cold because your cilia fail to remove the virus. Often when you hold in a sneeze, the pressure forces the bacteria into your ears.”

The Verdict

I don't have a medical degree or license, but personally, I doubt that holding in my sneezes is quite as treacherous as chiropractor Dr. Brunengraber claims. However, I was recently diagnosed with a bulged disc. Could it be that my decades of dainty non-sneezes put enough pressure on my L5-S1 disc to eventually cause it to bulge? Maybe — though I'd guess that my diagnosis has more to do with my bad posture at my work desk. While Dr. Westreich doesn't think my bad habit will physically harm me, Dr. Grossan's explanation makes the most sense to me: My body is trying to get rid of something that's annoying it, but it can't do that when I sabatoge it by silencing my sneezes.

I have a feeling I'll slip back into my anti-sneezes every once in a while, but from now on I'm going to try to sneeze freely and audibly — while covering my mouth, of course. This one's for you, Dad.