Finally, an explanation for my sneezing

Here I thought I was the only one but apparently photic sneezing has received enough attention to get researchers interested in it. Apparently it’s an ancient problem:

Aristotle mused about why one sneezes more after looking at the sun in The Book of Problems: “Why does the heat of the sun provoke sneezing?” He surmised that the heat of the sun on the nose was probably responsible.

Some 2 ,000 years later, in the early 17th century, English philosopher Francis Bacon neatly refuted that idea by stepping into the sun with his eyes closed–the heat was still there, but the sneeze was not (a compact demonstration of the fledgling scientific method). Bacon’s best guess was that the sun’s light made the eyes water, and then that moisture (“braine humour,” literally) seeped into and irritated the nose.

Humours aside, Bacon’s moisture hypothesis seemed quite reasonable until our modern understanding of physiology made it clear that the sneeze happens too quickly after light exposure to be the result of the comparatively sluggish tear ducts. So neurology steps in: Most experts now agree that crossed wires in the brain are probably responsible for the photic sneeze reflex.

It’s apparently an autosomal dominant trait, which would explain why other members of my family have the reflex too. Anyone else a photic sneezer?

32 thoughts on “Finally, an explanation for my sneezing”

  1. Yes. I am. When I was a child, my mother would drive me to school. As we made our way up the steep hill the sun would catch my face in the same place and I would sneeze!

    It was kind of fun and still is.

  2. Yep, all my life. I hear you can’t be an Air Force pilot if you are a photic sneezer, which makes sense. I feel it strongly way up in the back of my nostrils when I look at a bright light. I know a cure, whether in the form of a pill or surgery, isn’t worth it, but I’d still like to know more about what causes it.

  3. In an odd semi-related phenomenon, I yawn constantly when talking, reading or thinking about sneezing. I’m not sure if I yawn when looking at the sun, but I seem to have a wire crossed somewhere…

  4. I’ve had this problem all my life. It is compounded by the fact that I almost always sneeze very loudly and at least seven times in a row which makes people around me think that either I’m coughing or I’m having a serious medical problem.
    When I was in school I would also sneeze at my first exposure each day to chalk dust. My first period college algebra teacher would wait until I sneezed to start the class.

  5. People who don’t have this condition–or whatever it is–sometimes think I’m making it up.

  6. I had a cat that would sneeze when the drapes were opened to cast sunlight on her. This would work even when she was asleep. The ‘crossed wires’ makes sense.

  7. I must have a mild photic sneeze reflex. I only sneeze when I look at the sun specifically because I feel like I have a sneeze in me and I want it to come out.

  8. Another photic sneezer here. My dad is too. We both sneeze when coming out of buildings on sunny or otherwise bright days. I always sneeze exactly 2 times (except for the first time in my life this year, I did 3 sneezes once). He is a little more unlucky and sneezes about 5-10 times. I enjoy the sensation of sneezing, so it’s not so bad.

  9. Count me among the ranks of the photic sneezers. I’ve also had people accuse me of making it up when I tell them about it.

    I find it to be a useful tool; when I get an annoying tickle that’s on the verge of being a sneeze, but not quite strong enough to go all the way on its own, looking into a bright light will usually push it over the edge and bring sweet, sweet relief.

  10. I’m one. Always sneeze if I look at a bright light from a low light. But I read once that this is caused by a neural wiring situation where information from the retinas is confused for information from the nose, and that you can reconfuse the brain by another stimulus. I bite my lip and it often stops.

  11. Hmm. Curiously, I’ve never noticed myself simply sneezing when I enter sunlight, but both my wife and I notice that when we feel like we have to sneeze, but it’s not quite coming, looking at a bright light helps bring us all the way to sneezing. I wonder what that implies about the genetic background of the trait (different levels and all).

  12. Me too. Jeb, FCD — I doubt if it’s eye color; I have dark hazel eyes.

    And yes, my husband was convinced I was just making it up. He just doesn’t see how something like that could happen. :-/

  13. I assumed everyone sneezed from sunlight; I had no idea this was a genetic thing.

    Posted by: JasonE | January 25, 2008 10:19 AM

    He said it is a dominant trait so I would assume that means that more people end up with it than not.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  14. I am a photic sneezer too. From indoor light into bright sunlight, and it always makes me sneeze twice, no more, no less. My brother has the same thing. Oddly, I don’t think either of my parents do but if it’s autosomal dominant one of them must.

  15. Several years ago, when I was at a university, I had a schedule that left me leaving a relatively dark building and walking into bright mid-afternoon sunshine. This often triggered a violent sneeze. I took this as an opportunity to investigate the phenomenon. I discovered that closing my eyes before I turned to the sun did not always prevent a sneeze. I did however, discover that shading my lower eyelids by holding two fingers in front of them, with or without touching, would infallibly prevent a sneeze. This suggests strongly to me that, at least in my case (and likely, many others as well) both the retina and any nerves in the back of the eye are uninvolved in the reaction, but that some facial nerve is. I could even tilt my face up and look in the general direction of the sun, and, as long as my lower eyelids were shaded, there would be no sneeze. I considered continuing the experiment using that dark stuff that football players use on their faces, but chose not to look any odder than I ordinarily did.

    As Azkyroth describes, if I feel a sneeze coming on, but not quite arriving, facing a light (and it doesn’t have to be all that bright: 200W of overhead incandescent or 40W of fluorescent, or 60W/18W nearby desk lamp) will push me over the threshold.

  16. I’m a mild photic sneezer; not always, but walking from a dark area into a brightly-lit one often makes me sneeze for no other apparent reason.

    My father sneezes after eating, as well – something that I read somewhere is tied to the same crosswiring that leads to photic sneezing.

  17. Like MRL and others above, bright sunlight, rarely artificial light, frequently assists a sneeze that hovers high in my nose. On the odd occasion I can generate a sneeze at will by looking askance at the sun.

    I find a sneeze to be an enjoyable experience. I brief moment suspended in a timeless space. Repetitive sneezing becomes gradually less pleasant and finally annoying. Fortunately this is rare for me. Four is usually the most and is usually due to something irritating, like dust.

    Evidence that this trait is an inherited trait: My mother used to hang the laundry on the clothesline in the morning, facing the sun. My sibs and I would wait expectantly to hear, “AAAaaaa chhhOOOOoooo. Whooopieeeee!” Ma always liked a healthy sneeze.

    Another thing that works to encourage an incipient sneeze (and, I assure you, not related to the previous paragraph) is to recall a specific sexual encounter from about 35 years ago. Lacking a bright sun, this works almost every time. Surely I am not the only one?

  18. I, too, am a photic sneezer (first time I’ve ever heard the term) but it doesn’t happen all the time. In fact, it mostly happens in the spring as if I get used to the sun eventually. I sneeze 3 times, exactly……and it feels good as others have said.

  19. I’m a photic sneezer. Until I read the SciAm article a few days ago, I didn’t know there was a name for this “condition” and assumed everybody reacted the same way. Is there a support group?

  20. I didn’t know I was until a friend noticed I was trying to sneeze but could quite get it going and told me to look up at the light.

    I did, I sneezed. Well as a young scientist in training I realized one trial did not a conclusive experiment make so I remained skeptical (to his chagrin).

    Twenty some years of empirical evidence later confirms that even incandescent bulbs do the trick for me. I have to be on the verge of sneezing though. No amount of bright light will induce a sneeze from the “rest state”.

  21. I don’t seem to sneeze purely due to bright light, but I do sneeze when:
    a) I encounter a sudden change in air temperature (from a warm room to cold outside or vice versa)
    b) sudden change in humidity
    c) I eat mint or mint flavoured items such as chewing gum
    d) And of course there’s the usual pepper/dust trigger

    I always sneeze at least three times, usually more. And it can be a LOT more (about 8 to 9 times in a row) if I have a cold. Always leaves me with a runny nose for a few minutes too.

    I wonder if there’s a name for this? Or is it just incredibly crossed neural wiring?

  22. Wow, the power of the name. Now that I know there’s a word for it, I don’t feel so strange. I always sneeze once (very rarely twice) when walking out of a movie theater into bright sunlight.

    Now, is there a name for this other condition I have where I hiccup exactly once, once a day? I’ve done this every day since around 2001.

  23. I am a photic sneezer, as are my father, brother and was my grandfather, illustrating nicely the genetic factor that has been mentioned. In our case it also illustrates that you can have the reflex to varying degrees. Father and brother will typically sneeze on going out into the sun for the first time, and then be free of it for the rest of the day. For me (and for my grandfather before me), the reflex can be set off several times a day, if I come into bright light unexpectedly.

    The number of sneezes varies greatly too between individuals, even in the one family.

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