Sneezing: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

By Jennifer Nadel, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
July 25, 2022

In the health world, sneezing can be a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, sneezing helps your body to expel viruses, allergens, and other irritants from your nose.

It’s a strong and forceful defense mechanism.

On the other hand, this forcefulness makes sneezing perfect for spreading diseases like colds and COVID-19.

Studies have shown that while a cough expels approximately 3,000 droplets into the air, sneezes can produce 40,000 droplets

Sneezes are experienced as an involuntary reflex, and indeed, their suddenness and strength can sometimes prove disruptive in our lives.

While sneezing itself isn’t damaging to the body, in some cases it can be associated with serious diseases.

In this article, I’ll discuss the major causes of sneezing, including allergies and infection.

I’ll review the major treatments for sneezing, and I’ll explain what you can do to prevent sneezing.

Finally, I’ll explain when to talk to a medical provider about sneezing.

Causes

Sneezing is an involuntary, uncontrolled reflex.

When you sneeze, you are experiencing a sudden, forceful burst of air through the nose.

Researchers are still uncovering the exact genes, brain regions, and nerve pathways that control the sneezing reflex.

Sneezing is most often caused by irritation and inflammation in the nose’s mucous membranes.

When you sneeze, that blast of air expels mucus and may also expel some of the foreign particles or irritants that caused you to sneeze in the first place.

Sneezing can also be a way for your body to start to rid itself of a virus.

However, the downside is that it makes it possible to spread that virus to others through airborne droplets.

For this reason it’s important to always try to cover your sneezes with a tissue (or your inner elbow, in a pinch).

There is no one cause for sneezing.

Generally, sneezing alone is not a sign of a serious problem, unless it is accompanied by other symptoms. 

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Allergies

Allergies occur when your immune system mistakenly reacts to a particular substance (called an allergen) as a dangerous invader, and overproduces antibodies to attack that allergen.

These antibodies also cause changes to your body’s tissues, most often in the form of inflammation.

People can be allergic to all kinds of foods, plants, and substances, at different levels of severity.

When you come into contact with an allergic trigger — for instance, by breathing it in through your nose — your immune system will quickly release chemical compounds called histamines.

Histamines are part of your body’s inflammatory response, and one of their effects in the nasal passages is to trigger sneezing. 

Allergic Rhinitis

Allergic rhinitis is a group of symptoms that affect your nose through exposure to environmental allergic triggers.

It is also called hay fever.

Some 60 million people in the United States experience allergic rhinitis symptoms including sneezing, runny nose, and congestion.

These environmental triggers can vary seasonally in their prevalence and intensity, especially in the case of outdoor allergens like pollen.

Environmental triggers can also be found indoors, as in the case of pet dander, dust mites, and mold, as well as pollen that makes its way in through a window. 

Infections

Sneezing is rarely the only symptom of an infection, but it can be a prominent one. 

For the hundreds of viruses known collectively as “the common cold,” sneezing is often a major symptom.

It’s most experienced alongside some combination of coughing, headache, body aches, and runny nose

In its early days, COVID-19 was most strongly associated with coughing.

But we now know that sneezing can also be a frequent symptom.

Sneezing is also a way that COVID-19 can spread through the air to infdect other people.

This is why it’s important to isolate when you’re sneezing and have confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19.

Other causes

Sneezing can also be caused by nasal irritants like smoke, air pollution, dry air, spicy foods, airborne powders, and certain medicines (including some corticosteroid nasal sprays). 

In some cases, sneezing can also be triggered by causes as diverse as strong emotions, bright lights, or even plucking your eyebrows, though it’s not always clear to scientists why this is, and research into the exact mechanisms behind sneezing is ongoing.

It may sometimes feel as if you’re sneezing for no reason, or at least for a reason has yet to be fully studied scientifically. 

Treatment

Treatment for sneezing depends on what you and your doctor have identified as its most likely cause.

For the common cold, for instance, doctors will most often simply recommend lots of rest and fluids.

For a confirmed case of COVID-19, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medicine like Paxlovid.

For sneezing caused by allergic rhinitis and other allergic reactions, medical providers will often prescribe medications aimed at reducing the severity of the allergic response.

These include antihistamine medications like diphenhydramine (Benadryl), loratadine (Claritin), or cetirizine (Zyrtec).

Most often taken in pill form, these medications reduce the production of the histamine compounds that can inflame your nasal passages when they are confronted with an allergen. 

Corticosteroid steroid nasal sprays like fluticasone propionate (Flonase) can also reduce levels of inflammation in the nose.

They lessen the likelihood of sneezing and other allergic rhinitis symptoms by dampening the body’s immune response in that area. 

Home remedies for sneezing may include: drinking lots of water; flushing allergens from the nose with saline solution; and using an air purifier to remove allergens from indoor spaces.

Supplements like vitamin C, probiotics, and turmeric might also help to reduce allergic sneezing, though more research is needed. 

Prevention

Avoiding infectious illnesses like the common cold and COVID-19 is one way to prevent sneezing.

Doctors recommend practicing thorough hand-washing and staying away from anyone who might be sick with these kinds of respiratory diseases.

COVID-19 and flu vaccines are another safe and effective preventative measure. 

If you have a known allergy, try to avoid exposing yourself to it before you start to sneeze.

For seasonal allergies, it might help to keep your windows closed and shower before bed at times when pollen levels are high.

For dust sensitivity, make sure to clean your house regularly.

Washing bedding and clothing in extremely hot water (at least 130° F) can also help to kill dust mites.

You can also take allergy medicine preventatively in anticipation of encountering the allergen.

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When to See a Medical Provider

You should talk to your medical provider if frequent sneezing is hurting the quality of your life, and if at-home treatments are not working.

Your medical provider will likely take a history of your sneezing patterns and triggers.

You should seek immediate medical attention if you are experiencing the symptoms of a severe allergy attack.

You should also talk to your medical provider if your sneezing is accompanied by any other symptoms that might point to a more serious infection or disease.

These may include: 

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can COVID-19 start with sneezing?
Sneezing is a recognized symptom of COVID-19 and can appear alongside symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing at many stages of the disease.
What does it mean if I sneeze a lot?
If you sneeze a lot at times when pollen counts in your area are high, or after being exposed to potential triggers like dust, pet dander, or mold, you may have allergic rhinitis, also known as seasonal allergies or hay fever. But sneezing a lot may also be a sign that you have an infection, or a sign of exposure to environmental irritants like smoke or spicy foods.
Is sneezing good for health?
The sneezing reflex can help to expel foreign substances from your nasal passages, though it can also be a sign of allergies or infection.
Can you sneeze for no reason?
Researchers are still studying the exact ways that the sneezing reflex works, which means at the moment, there can still be instances where it seems like you’re sneezing “for no reason.”
K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jennifer Nadel, MD

Dr. Jennifer Nadel is a board certified emergency medicine physician and received her medical degree from the George Washington University School of Medicine. She has worked in varied practice environments, including academic urban level-one trauma centers, community hospital emergency departments, skilled nursing facilities, telemedicine, EMS medical control, and flight medicine.

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