On Sneezing What can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

There’s a folkloric myth that does the rounds at this time of year and I’m going to start this article by busting it.

Humans do not lose an inordinate amount of heat through our heads.

The amount of heat lost through your face and scalp is entirely proportionate to the size of your head.

The idea that we lose 40-45% of heat through the head is a myth, based on a dodgy military experiment in the 1950s.

Your face and head are more sensitive to changes in temperature than, say, your shins, but this doesn’t translate to more rapid cooling from an un-hatted bonce.

However: if the rest of your body is well-insulated with woolly jumpers and thermals, then — yes! — the absence of a similarly-insulated noggin will result in a surprisingly rapid drop in your core temperature. But, I repeat, this is only if the rest of you is wrapped up warm.

Rapid cooling through the head might happen for two reasons:

  1. A cold head alone doesn’t trigger the shiver reflex (which slows the rate of cooling). Strange, but true.
  2. There are a lot of blood vessels very close to the surface of your scalp and face. When exposed to cold air, the blood passing through your scalp cools quickly and this cold blood gets pumped around the rest of your body. Brr.

In fact, it seems that the primary role of networks of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin is for dumping heat (AKA thermoregulation). In humans, these ‘radiators’ are not just on our face, but also on our feet and, most prominently, our hands.

Conclusion: keep the hat, but don’t neglect the rest of your winter wardrobe — particularly not winter socks and mittens.

Strenuous sternutation

November is the official snuggle-up-warm time of year because a mere twenty minutes of cold exposure can more than double your chances of getting an actual cold.

Even when I don’t have a cold, I sneeze a lot. It seems to happen as a reflex response to getting a bit chilly, particularly my feet. And then, sometimes, the sneezing doesn’t stop.

As I spent the week on Dartmoor, I, and particularly my feet, got cold. During the course of a beautiful four and half hour walk on Thursday, I sneezed a grand total of eighty times.

There would appear to be two possible explanations for my heroic record of sternutation (you didn’t think that medicine would call a sneeze a sneeze, did you?):

  1. The trigeminal nerve in my nose is hyper-sensitive to stimulation (in this case, fluctuations in temperature).
  2. The sneezing centre in my brain’s lateral medulla has a low threshold for triggering explosive exhalations.

I could perhaps moderate the first using a steroid nasal spray. The second might have developed as a result of a work-shy allergy to dust and might be influenceable by some kind of Jedi mind trick?

Frankly, I’m speculating / making things up. Let’s get back to the science.

Counting one’s bless-you-ings

I’m a huge fan of The Boring Talks and, as a sneezer, the most memorable for me is #11: Sneezing.

It’s narrated by Peter Fletcher, a man who logged every single sneeze he ever snozed between July 2007 and June 2018.

To take my mind off my explosive sternutations, I decided to give Sneezing another listen.

I was shocked to discover that I sneezed more times on Thursday than sneeze-meister-general Peter Fletcher ever recorded in a month across eleven years of monitoring (95 in March 2008).

My twenty-four hour sneeze count topped out at 127.

You can see from this chart that peak sternutation occured while walking the windy wilds of Dartmoor, between about 10am and 3pm, before settling down in front of the cosy bunkhouse fire and stopping completely after I fell asleep.

Why sleep sneezing is impossible

A sternutation is a physical reflex to external stimuli. When we sleep, our body does two things to prevent this reflex from happening.

During non-REM sleep, our cerebral cortex and thalamus get together to massively raise the waking threshold for incoming stimuli. Without registering the irritating stimulus, there is no sneeze reflex.

During REM sleep, we also go into a state called REM atonia, during which our motor neurons are inactive. As sneezing is a physical reflex, this sleep paralysis prevents the coordination of muscles necessary for a jolly good wachoo.

If, while you were soundly sleeping, I were to tap your knee with one of those silly little hammers, you’d just lie there and take it. (Unless I give you a proper whack, that is.) No reflexes; no sneezes. Mercifully.

How often does the average person sneeze??

It turns out that my epic sneeze count means that I am in high demand. At least, I would be over on Sneeze Fetish Forum. Oh yes. There’s a forum for everything.

The photic sneeze reflex, caused by bright light, is pretty common. Less common are the snatiation reflex, caused by a full stomach (‘snatiation’ is a portmanteau of ‘sneeze’ and ‘satiation’), and, yes, sneezing at the point of orgasm.

To satiate your curiosity, here’s a selection of Sneeze Fetish Forum responses to the question, ‘How often does the average person sneeze??’:

  • Unfortunately, I seem to sneeze once a week at most.
  • People who sneeze seldom have the nicest wettest sneezes in my observations. My old girlfriend was one of those types.
  • For a long period of time I was inducing sneezes to create content regularly and during that time I would rarely naturally sneeze.

Things I’ve learnt from my undercover sneeze fetish research:

  1. Some people yearn for sneezes.
  2. Wetter sneezes are better sneezes.
  3. Sneezes are CONTENT.

Before I fire up the old webcam for an Only Fans, here is the scientific answer to the same question on sneeze frequency: 95% of eighty people in one experiment sneezed and blew their nose fewer than four times per day on average.

More than half of those people averaged less than one sneeze per day over the two weeks of the experiment. Now, that is boring.

What can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

Maybe my whole life I’ve been thinking about my violent sneezes all wrong. Maybe I’m special.

Maybe my sneezes are some kind of super power — what can you do a hundred times a day at a thousand kilometres per hour?

Maybe, maybe my sneezes are divine omens from the gods.

This makes complete sense, as ancient Greek philosopher Aristo pointed out, because the sneeze is a direct message from the lungs, the most profound and holy part of the body.

After all, the great poet Homer once sang of the mighty sneeze of Telemachus, son of Odysseus, and of how patient Penelope interpreted this awesome sternutation as a divine omen that her depraved suitors would be vanquished by the mysterious stranger:

Telemachus sneezed so loudly that the whole house resounded with it. Penelope laughed when she heard this, and said to Eumaeus, ‘Go and call the stranger; did you not hear how my son sneezed just as I was speaking? This can only mean that all the suitors are going to be killed, and that not one of them shall escape.’

So next time you see me, tremble before my almighty sternutations and weep!

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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