Before the pandemic, I often daydreamed that upon sneezing in public, bystanders would think, Hmm, pretty good sneeze on that guy. Not to be immodest, but I do have an exceptional sneeze. It’s an efficient achoo, with little energy wasted on vocals or extra choos. At the same time, it never sounds like I’m holding back. In fact, in a perfect world, everyone would sneeze like me.
Still, I spend an irrational amount of time worrying about what might become of my impeccable sneeze whenever I hear my dad belt out an earth-shattering one over the phone. It’s so clamorous that he’s been known to scatter birds from the tree outside my apartment. Thus, I can’t help but wonder, Are my sneezes doomed to the same fate?
For the most part, the volume of a sneeze depends on numerous innate bodily features, such as the size, shape and capacity of your lungs, nose, neck and head, and how all those parts come together to reflexively clear your lungs and airways.
On that count, when sensory nerves in the nasal passages detect something that needs to be expelled, the diaphragm contracts, drawing air into the lungs and forcefully pushing it back out through the vocal cords, mouth and nose. “A person expels the air at speeds of around 93 miles per hour, with the soft palate and uvula depressed to direct air through the nasal passages,” explains Natasha Fuksina, a physician in New Jersey. “The act requires an integrated activity of pharyngeal, laryngeal and respiratory muscles to contract producing a sneezing effect.”
Considering the fact that sneezing is largely involuntary and the sound that results is “predetermined by the specifics of one’s anatomy,” Fuksina says, “loud sneezers certainly run in families.”
Still, there’s enough wiggle room to buck your genetics. Namely, by controlling the amount of air you breathe in, or trying to route the air expelled more through the nose or mouth and limit the vibrations it creates, “one can try to suppress [a sneeze] voluntarily to some degree or to alter the vibrations of the sound,” Fuksina says. “That can make the sneeze be more or less audible and can change the pitch of the sound perceived.”
But then again, even in terms of nurture, watching your dad blast earth-shattering sneezes during your formative years can have significant influence on how you yourself sneezes as an adult. “I’ve always felt that it’s going to be a mixture of nature and nurture, because you’ll find some big old guys with little, soft voices who sneeze in a similar fashion,” explains Patti Wood, author of Shooting the Breeze About Sneezing. “Just because a strong man has inherited giant lungs and strong diaphragm muscles doesn’t necessarily mean his sneeze will be loud.”
Consider that sneezes from even the same person can vary in frequency, sound and force, depending on what triggers it, if the sneezer is at home or in public, how much air is inhaled on the intake and whether the diaphragm sends the expelled air through the nose, mouth or both. Stories of what can go wrong when you physically suppress a sneeze abound, Wood adds, “yet there are personality types that suppress it anyway, and would think it incredibly rude not to.”
With that, I’d be remiss not to add another sneeze-theory rabbit hole spurred by what’s known as “sexually induced sneezing.” The “activation of parasympathetic nervous system” of sneezing is so closely tied to orgasms that “having a sexual thought or orgasm is known to set off a sneeze,” Fuksina tells me. “Whether there’s a genetic component to that is unknown,” she adds, but neurologist Alan Hirsch has his own theory. “When we think about sneezing, it’s almost orgasmic in its quality. By giving in to it, you’re experiencing the positive pleasures of a nasal orgasm,” he told NBC News in 2013. “So if someone is more sexually repressed, they may withhold it. But if they’re hedonistically-oriented and like pleasure, they may sneeze loudly and strongly.”
This theory is largely anecdotal and hasn’t gotten within sneezing distance of scientific rigor, but it’s worth growing nauseated over whether or not your dad was actually getting off all those years he was firing big nose loads from the basement.
As for me, ultimately, Wood and Fuksina would contend that my currently perfect sneezes are the result of an otherwise inobtrusive personality and well-oiled sneeze apparatus. However, there is one significant factor working against me: Getting old. “There’s some evidence to suggest that growing older comes with a loss of inhibitions,” Wood tells me. “Eventually, people might just stop caring how loud their sneeze is no matter where they are.”
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I gotta go. I think I hear my dad sneezing from a couple hundred miles away.