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ACAAI > Patients & Public > Resources > Letters to the Editor
Do You "Sternutate"? 

Have you ever “sternutated”? We all have!!!  A sneeze (or sternutation) is a semi-autonomous, convulsive expulsion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth, that occurs when the nerve endings of the mucous membrane of the nose are irritated, usually caused by foreign particles. Surprisingly enough, sneezing can be brought on (or out!) when the optic nerves in our eyes are exposed to bright light!

Or, particularly by a full stomach, or viral infection, and can lead to the spread of disease.  But if you are one of the 18.2 million Americans who suffer from allergic rhinitis, or "hay fever," chances are you may be sneezing, reaching for a box of tissues or rubbing your itchy, red, watery eyes as you read this.  It is the start of yet another allergy season, when pollen seems to cover the universe and very little relief is in sight.  While many patients endure mild to moderate symptoms, the larger truth is that the world of allergies is a complex and costly landscape. More than 50 million Americans suffer from all forms of allergies, which some report as the 5th or 6th leading cause of chronic diseases in the United States. For unknown reasons, the incidence of hay fever has risen substantially in the past 15 years. This may be due climate change that demonstrating increase in pollen seasons in the United States.

Thus allergies are truly “nothing to sneeze at’! This saying, which has been around since the early 1800s, may come from the idea that someone might turn up his or her nose at something unimportant or unworthy. When you say something is "nothing to sneeze at," you're saying it's actually important  -- something that deserves serious attention. For example, coming in second place in the science fair is nothing to sneeze at. Even though you didn't come in first, second place is still an important accomplishment. 

Sneezing was considered the right thing to do in good society of 17th century Europe when the craze for sneezing caught on. Indeed, it was considered that the more you sneezed, the more you proved yourself a member of the privileged class. To build up this new status symbol, all kinds of devices were used. It was soon realized that “snuff” caused sneezing. Therefore everyone who was someone carried with him a little box, containing a mixture of sneeze-producing herbs or tobacco. By drawing an ample pinch of it into the nostrils, an immediate hearty sneeze resulted. However, only the rich and idle had time to sneeze or could afford snuff. Hence the self-induced sneeze became synonymous with aristocratic living!!  One indulged in it whenever they wanted to show your disapproval of anything said or, even more so, your lack of interest in the matter discussed.  A sneeze was an unmistakable way of saying politely ‘you bore me.' Consequently and logically, anything ‘not to be sneezed at' was something really worthwhile!!!!

Medical science dispelled ancient beliefs concerning the out-of-control sneeze, and snuffed out superstitions in the process. Primitive people held the belief that a sneeze signified approaching death, and immediately assisted the distressed person by crying out "God help you!".  Egyptians, Romans, and Greeks, saw the sneeze as an omen of approaching danger, or, on a more positive note, as a way of foretelling the future.  Lucky ones sneezed to the right, while unlucky ones sneezed to the left. Biblically speaking, sneezing meant a certain death, until Jacob and made a deal with God, whereby a prayer per sneeze cheated the grim reaper.  Pope Gregory the Great, in response to the sixth century plague in Italy, carved out his place in history as being the one responsible for insisting that prayers, such as "God bless you!," be said in response to the deadly sneeze. He did not, however, order that tissues be kept close at hand to snare the airborne germs spewed forth by the sneeze.

However, one that suffers from such misery can now find relief in the hands of those specially trained to address the “sternutation”! May "God bless you" with the help of an Allergist!

Len Bielory, MD, FACAAI

STARx Allergy and Asthma Center

Springfield, New Jersey