Does Your Heart Stop When You Sneeze?

Sneezing was once thought to get rid of 'bad spirits'. Does it also cause your heart to skip a beat?

By Judy Feldman on August 15, 2012 9:15 AM EDT

Woman Sneezing
Does Sneezing Make Your Heart Stop? (Photo: Wiki Commons)

Maybe...sometimes. Here's the latest news. A sneeze, also called a sternulation, is a response to a little irritation or a tickle. The sneeze is the body's attempt to remove the irritation, and reportedly can send tiny particles speeding out of your nose at up to 100 miles per hour! The sneeze sends a message to your brain, which sends a message to a whole slew of muscles including the abdominal muscles, the chest muscles, the diaphragm, the muscles that control your vocal cords, muscles in the back of your throat, and even the eyelid muscles! Next time you sneeze; see if you keep your eyes open. Probably not!

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What happens is that right before you sneeze you typically take a deep breath, increasing the pressure in your chest, and just for a moment slowing or stopping the flow of blood to your heart. As you let the breath out, your blood pressure increases again, and the heart rate goes back down.  The sneeze stimulates the vagus nerve - one of two long cranial nerves that extend from the brain stem to the belly, carrying various signals to and from the brain, and responsible for instinctive responses, or reflexes. The vagus nerve is also called Cranial Nerve X, or the Wandering Nerve.

Bottom Line for The Sneeze: Typically, when the vagus or wandering nerve is stimulated the heart rate slows down. But even if a sneeze is big and noisy, and repeats a few times, (and sneezes are often fun or at least a relief) the entire effect is typically quite tiny on the heart. So maybe your heart slows down and maybe it does even skip a beat. Sometimes.

This phenomenon is not unique to sneezing, Dr. Christopher Magovern, a cardiothoracic surgeon at a cardiothoracic surgeon at Morristown Medical Center in New Jersey told the NYTimes. This also happens with coughing, gagging and other similar bodily actions that can trigger the vagus nerve. "There's nothing special about the sneeze," Magovern explained. "It's almost like a cough through your nose. It increases vagal tone, and that stimulation causes your brain to program your heart to slow down. Your heart can slow down, skip a beat, or stop momentarily. But it resumes."

That said, the sneeze is also a window into other forms of research, particularly for sufferers of Sinusitis, a severe and often chronic infection that can be quite serious, when sneezing and more generally runs amuck. As reported in a new research report appearing online in The FASEB Journal, "Much like a temperamental computer, our noses require a "reboot" when overwhelmed, and this biological reboot is triggered by the pressure force of a sneeze. When a sneeze works properly, it resets the environment within nasal passages so "bad" particles breathed in through the nose can be trapped. The sneeze is accomplished by biochemical signals that regulate what the beating of cilia (microscopic hairs) on the cells that line our nasal cavities."

The new research studied cells taken from the noses of mice. "While sinusitis rarely leads to death, it has a tremendous impact on quality of life, with the majority of symptoms coming from poor clearance of mucus," said Noam A. Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., in a prepared statement. Cohen is a researcher involved in the work from the Department of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. "By understanding the process by which patients with sinusitis do not clear mucus from their nose and sinuses, we can try to develop new strategies to compensate for their poor mucus clearance and improve their quality of life.To read more about how a sneeze can be likened to the Windows' Blue Screen of Death in this study on sinusitis, read here.

In very rare situations, sneezing can slow the heart rate or lower blood pressure so much that it can cause someone to pass out. This is known as Sneeze Syncope. Some people might also have an exaggerated response to a fit of sneezes or coughs if they have a congenital heart abnormality, Dr. Magovern said to the NYTimes, or if they are taking medications that affect heart rate, like beta blockers. But once again, this is extremely rare.

Some people need to sneeze when something bright hits their eye. And as described at Medicine.net, a disorder called the Achoo Syndrome exists! It is "nearly uncontrollable paroxysms of sneezing provoked in a reflex fashion by the sudden exposure of a dark-adapted subject to intensely bright light, usually to brilliant sunlight. The number of successive sneezes is usually 2 or 3, but can be up to about 40. The achoo syndrome is also called the photic sneeze reflex or the helio-ophthalmic outburst syndrome. In one study, Achoo Syndrome was found in 23%  of medical students, and is considered a common genetic traits. If you happen to have Achoo Syndrome, coming out of the dark and re-entering into the light or very bright sunlight can stimulate a series of sneezes. Gesundheit!

© 2012 iScience Times All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.

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