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As the allergy season approaches, many are already bracing themselves that they’ll spend most of the time sneezing and wiping their nose. Tissues will become their best friend. For others, though, this is a sign of worry. In recent years, the number of people who suffer from some sleep disorder that prevents them from getting proper rest and disrupts their daily functioning has increased. If you add seasonal allergies to this, it can be a troublesome period during which you pray that it goes away as soon as possible.
It is no surprise that people started to wonder “If it’s possible to experience allergy attack and discomfort during the night when you’re sick, is it possible to sneeze during sleep? More importantly, can it disrupt your sleep?” In this article, we will talk about the phenomenon of sneezing, how it occurs, and if it is possible to sneeze during the night.
What Happens When We Sneeze and Why?
Simply said, sneezing helps us clear out unwanted stuff from our nose. The nose is one of the organs that is quite underestimated when we talk about preserving our health as it is the entrance to our respiratory system. The job of your nose is to warm, filter and humidify the air that you inhale and it’s the first organ to fight off any potential intruder that can harm our health by getting into lungs.
The nose contains mucous membranes which trap debris and pathogens. Sometimes, some things trigger your nose so intensely, that it must immediately and forcefully expel it. This process of cleansing gets boosted instantly due to sneezing. Sneezing is like rebooting your nose as it cleans it. The reflex of sneezing usually gets activated when the mucous membranes in your nose are irritated and start to swell. Immediately after you hear big “ahchoo!” coming out of your mouth (Remember to always cover it with the crook of your arm or tissue for the sake of others).
Here is the summary of how sneezing process works:
- Before getting to mucous membranes, the foreign particles must go through the nasal cavity and nose hairs.
- The particles cause histamines release that is made of nitrogen.
- Histamines trigger the endings of the nerves in mucous membranes in the nose which send a signal to the brain.
- Our brain then sends that signal to tracheal and pharyngeal muscles that make the openings in throat and nose larger.
- Sneezing happens.
There are many causes to why we sneeze. It can be the usual ones like allergens, influenza or ones that are not so common like sudden exposure to light (when you get out of the shade into the direct sunlight) and due to a disorder called sanitation.
Can We Sneeze During the Night?
Although this topic needs to be studied more in the future, scientists say that there might be some possibilities to sneeze during sleep based on the knowledge of how our body and brain work. However, many of them also agree that there is not enough research to provide a firm answer. One researcher who has been involved in many studies said that he hasn’t experienced that someone sneezed during sleep, but he hasn’t provoked them either. He also states that the reason we are often provoked to sneeze is due to external factors when we are active during the day, but we are not exposed to most of them while sleeping.
Even though this may be true, some experts say that we should sneeze during sleep more because lying on our stomach, back, or side can cause our mucous membranes to swell, but our body has an interesting trick to keep us asleep. A process called REM atonia (rapid eye movement) suppresses impulses for sneezing. The neurotransmitters which are usually in charge to detect some allergens or foreign particles, that can trigger sneezing, are asleep during the process of REM atonia.
How Does REM Atonia Affect Sneezing?
Our circadian clock oversees sleep, and it’s controlled by sunlight. When the sun is down, hormone melatonin is released and makes us feel drowsy. Once the sun is up again, people feel more alert as melatonin wears off.
During the night, our sleep is composed of five stages that are a part of our circadian rhythm. Four of them are non-REM stages that make 75 percent of our rest, and one is REM sleep that makes 25 percent.
- In the first stage, our body enters light sleep. As the name explains enough, during this stage you can easily wake-up, but your eye movement slows down, and the activity of the muscles is reduced.
- In the second stage, the waves of the brain and eye movement slow down. This stage prepares our bodies for deep sleep, so the heart rate and the body temperature are much lower.
- In the third stage, the delta waves (slow-moving waves of the brain) are in dynamic with rapid waves that combined cause body to enter deep sleep making a transition between sleep that is non-REM and REM. During this stage parasomnias like bedwetting and sleepwalking are most likely to happen.
- When our body gets into the fourth stage, our body is in slow-wave sleep.
- The fifth stage is the REM stage where REM atonia and dreams occur while we sleep.
REM atonia, as we mentioned before, leads to certain neurotransmitters shutting down. Because of that, the neurons that cause the action of sneezing are not triggered even if our nasal cavity is exposed to irritating particles.
It can lead you to think “Okay during the fifth stage it is understandable that we don’t sneeze, but what about the other four stages of sleep?” Good question. It is the part where science might be too complicated to comprehend. In stages that are non-REM, the cerebral cortex and thalamus activate each other to hold back reactions like sneezing. But if a stimulus is strong enough to trigger the sneezing, then the person who was sleeping will wake up and sneeze. Even though we cannot unconsciously sneeze in sleep, we might wake up and sneeze due to something that triggered our sneeze reflex.
How to Stop the Sneezing Reflex While Sleeping?
There are some measures of precaution that you can take to ensure you won’t wake up due to the urge to sneeze:
- Vacuum the bedroom often to remove allergens and other dust particles.
- Make sure you clean your pillow and pillowcases regularly to prevent exposure to dust mites.
- Do not place your clothes on your bed due to particles of pollen that cling to fabric.
- If you own a pet and your pet sleeps with you, you should wash bedding set at least once a week.
Interesting Sneezing Myths
Sneezing with eyes open – Some people believed that if you sneeze with open eyes, they will pop out. Don’t worry that won’t happen. We automatically shut our eyes, and the pressure that builds up as we sneeze is not enough to make our eyes pop out.
The heart will stop if you sneeze – Former president of the American University of Cardiology, Dr. Conti, believed that due to the sensation of sneezing your heart stops for a few seconds, but later on, it was discovered that the heart could change the rhythm of beating, but it does not stop because of a sneeze.
Sneezing is a sign that somebody is thinking of you – If this is true then celebrities can’t stop sneezing. Although we don’t know the origin of this myth, Japanese people made their version of it. They believe that sneezing one time means someone is gossiping about you, two times means it’s something bad, and three times means that somebody is in love with you.
Sneezing of a baby – It is so adorable when a baby sneezes, but in some countries like in Britain, people once believed that every time a baby sneezes it means it is under a spell of a fairy. If a Maori baby sneezes, it means good news and prosperity, while in Tonga it is a sign of bad luck.
Sneezing will reveal Gods plan – In Ancient Rome, Greece, and Egypt, people believed that if you sneeze God will reveal your future, good or bad.
A strong sneeze will lead to a fatal event – In Europe, during the Middle Ages, people believed that life is tied to one’s breath. If a sneeze was too loud and a large amount of breath was ejected, it was a bad sign that something fatal would happen.
“Bless you” – One thousand five hundred years ago people held a belief that when a person sneezes it, the soul leaves the body for a short period of time leaving your body to be occupied by the Devil. So, the term “bless you” was like a protection for the soul of the sneezer.
Similarly, during the great plague in the 13th century, the pope would encourage people to bless the sneezer as it would protect him/her from the terrorizing plague.
Cat sneeze determines the luck of one’s marriage – In Italy, it was believed that if the bride hears a cat sneezing on the day of her wedding, it means that her marriage would be filled with happiness, but if the cat sneezes three times, her family will catch a cold.
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A fashion designer by profession, writer by choice and bookworm – always. As a person struggling with anxiety for years and someone who loves to sleep, I can relate to the struggles of getting a good night’s rest. When I’m not doing sleep research, I enjoy reading books, being involved in creative activities and discovering the best use of my Moka pot.