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Question 13 of 13 that match search criteria
Date Answered: 4/14/2013
How come you can’t keep your eyes open when you sneeze? Is your body protecting your eyes from popping out?
Dear Ah...wait for it...choo!,

As much as the public might benefit from a personal anecdote here, QB doesn’t have eyes. Or a nose. But QB does have research skills! This is one of those questions that certainly "tickles" the curiosity. QB found that, while UIUC has many great article databases for health and science, the articles featured there are long and overly scientific for a topic like this one. To search for an answer that the general populous can stomach, QB turned to a less scholarly--but totally credible--newspaper search.

The University of Illinois has a top-notch History, Philosophy and Newspaper library, which provides access to tons of local, national, and international news sources online. Looking under "current news," QB began with a search for recent news pieces about sneezing and sneezes. One of the most interesting and accessible items that came up in the search was a piece from the Washington Post a few years back, which features an online visual representation of "The Anatomy of a Sneeze." This graphic shows a detailed overview of how a sneeze comes to pass, including irritation of the mucosal lining of the nose, triggering of nerve endings, signals sent to various parts of the body, and the ultimate contractions that result in the exit of the sneeze. There are two key things to take away from this article that relate to your question: the first is that the sneeze is characterized as a "protective reflex;" the second is that one of the steps depicted is that "the brain signals the eyes to shut."

To reflect on those two points, QB turned to a couple of additional sources. In a McClatchy-Tribune Business News article from 2007, the sneeze is compared to both laughing and yawning. While sneezing is described as a little more "concrete" than its counterparts, all three are nonetheless described as reflexes, where often dozens of muscles snap to attention and react due to various physical and environmental triggers. In other words, sneezing is a reflex in much the same way as the kicking motion one’s leg might make when the knee is hit. It appears that it might be physically possible to sneeze with the eyes open, but it’s very unlikely that that particular reflex won’t flare up. As for the eyes popping out, there are muscles that hold them firmly in place--luckily for you all, they’re not simply kept in place by the presence of the eyelids. People are, however, encouraged not to hold in sneezes; the build-up of pressure might cause some damage to the ears, sinuses, and even the eyes.

Sneezing is a highly varied occurrence, though: despite being on the UGL’s quiet floor, QB has heard elephants and mosquitoes alike when it comes to student kerchoos. If you’re looking for a hypochondriacal fright, many articles these days seem to be interested in talking about "Dangerous Sneezes," referring to incidents where individuals have ruptured discs, suffered physical brain trauma, and triggered fatal car accidents. But most of those happen only once-in-a-mucous-colored-moon. Unless, of course, you have ACHOO syndrome. Some genius decided that calling it this made more sense than its scientific name, autosomal dominant compelling heliopthalmic outburst syndrome, but it’s really no laughing matter. QB turned to The Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders for this one. Apparently, some people face the reality of incessant, violent sneezing episodes after viewing any bright light. This is widespread enough that it’s possible that around a quarter of the population may have it--but it’s genetic, so if you don’t have it yet, you probably don’t have it.

Finally, can we all just take a second to think about how funny the word "sneeze" is? "Sneeze." Classic.

Source(s) Used to Answer Question:
Fundukian, L., ed. “ACHOO Syndrome.” The Gale Encyclopedia of Genetic Disorders. Vol. 1. 3rd ed. Detroit: Gale, 2010, 29-31. http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CCX2468400022&v=2.1&u=uiuc_uc&it=r&p=GPS&sw=w

Guili, C. “Nothing to sneeze at.” Maclean's, 122(51), 89. 4 January 2010. http://search.proquest.com/docview/218548227?accountid=14553

Shelton, J. “Keep a hanky handy.” McClatchy - Tribune Business News. 29 April 2007. http://search.proquest.com/docview/459365039?accountid=14553

Squires, Sally. “Fighting a Cold, the Old Way: Anatomy of a Sneeze and Cough” and graphic. Washington Post. 5 February 2008. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/01/AR2008020103282.html?sid=ST2008020401625