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Sometimes sneezing can be really inconvenient, but why does a technique made popular by cartoon shows seem to be effective at stopping them?

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Dr. Melissa Pynonnen, Michigan Medicine
[ INTRO ].

Okay, let’s be honest: Sometimes, sneezing is not that convenient. I get that it clears dust and irritants out of your nose, but if you’re sitting in the middle of a silent lecture hall or a movie or a wedding, you don’t really want to be that guy making a bunch of noise.

And even though closing your mouth and pinching your nose shut is an option, it also forces all that pressure inside your head, which could cause tissue damage. One common idea is that holding a finger under your nose can stop a sneeze. And if you do it right, it actually seems to work most of the time.

It’s all thanks to some specific nerves in your face. You get the urge to sneeze when something irritates the membranes in your nose or throat. Those irritants stimulate one of the major nerves in your face, called the trigeminal nerve, which runs all throughout your forehead, nose area, and jaw, and has different branches.

Specifically, the part in your nose is called the maxillary nerve. And when it’s triggered, it sends a signal to your brain that ultimately results in a sneeze. Now, if you just hold a finger under your nose when that urge strikes, it probably won’t do much.

What you really have to do is press on your upper lip, a gesture that looks almost identical but actually sends a different signal to your brain. Because the maxillary nerve also goes into your upper lip. When we talked to Dr.

Melissa Pynonnen at the University of Michigan, she suggested that stimulating your maxillary nerve like this might interrupt the sneeze response. Essentially, it distracts your brain. She said it’s kind of like how, when you bump your knee on a coffee table, your first instinct is to rub it to make it feel better.

You’re unintentionally trying to distract the nerves in your knee with another, competing signal. So pressing a finger on your upper lip probably won’t stop every sneeze, but it might prevent a few of them. Now, if you need something a little more subtle than holding your finger under your nose, you can also try pressing your tongue against the roof of your mouth.

Your maxillary nerve passes through there, too, so it could cause the same distracting response. It is worth noting that there aren’t really scientific experiments that have tested this, but based on the anatomy of your face, there are reasons it should work. And you probably won’t look too silly trying it out.

Thanks for asking, and special thanks to Dr. Melissa Pynonnen for your time and insights! If you’d like to learn even more, you can watch our episode about why bright lights make some people sneeze.

It’s actually related [ OUTRO ].