I have been very blessed lately, and I bet that you have been too.

It is not an epidemic of good fortune, but rather an overabundance of pollen that has brought all of those “bless you’s” in response to the seemingly never-ending supply of sneezes.

Leafout is over, the trees are flowering and pollen has been flowing — or, more accurately, floating. Blame it on the oaks more than the pines, because the pollen from deciduous trees is usually more allergenic than pollen from conifers. Pollen is not alone in its ability to make you sneeze: dander, dust, mold and other allergens and illnesses can make your sneeze as well.

Even the sun can inspire these eruptions, since about 30 per cent of the population has photic, or sun-caused, sneezing disorder. The scientific name of this very real condition is Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helio-Opthalmic Outburst Syndrome, or ACHOO syndrome, for short. Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor?

In the simplest terms, a sneeze is a body’s response to an irritation in the nasal passages. Also called sternutation, sneezing involves more than just your nose. Your throat, chest, lungs, abdomen, and even eyelids (which generally close during a sneeze) all are a part of the mounted response to get rid of the offending irritant.

The nose knows first. When a foreign particle irritates the nasal membranes, histamines are released and signals are sent to nerve cells and brain cells. The intention is to get rid of the invader, and a sneeze is a very strong and effective way to remove it. Interestingly enough, while the sneeze starts in the nose, it finishes in the mouth. Consider that a sneeze consists of more than 40,000 aerosol droplets which are expelled orally at a speed of 100 miles per hour. Even with this force, it is not true that your heart stops when you sneeze, although it can change its beat.

Duck and cover is a good strategy if you are in the path of an oncoming sneeze. These droplets can carry disease. One reason that “God bless you” became a habitual response to a sneezer was, of course, to wish that the sneezer didn’t get ill (which is why the German response is “gesundheit,” meaning “health”), but there were other reasons as well. It was at one time feared that during a sneeze the devil could fly down your throat or your soul could escape through your mouth. A quick “God bless you” was thought to be the best antidote to both of these threats.

Others believed that sneezing brought guests — as one saying had it, “Sneeze before 7 brings company before 11.”

On the positive side, sneezing was thought to be a prophetic sign from the gods. Conversely, it may also have indicated that someone is talking about you. If you sneezed once, you were being spoken of positively; but two sneezes indicated that someone was using slanderous or libelous talk about you. Three sneezes means that you are being scolded and four or more simply that you have a cold. An optimist (or English proverb) finds a brighter side to multiple sneezes: “Once a wish, twice a kiss, three times a letter, four times something better.”

It also matters when you sneeze. According to another British proverb, both the date and time make a difference: If you sneeze on Monday, you sneeze for danger; on Tuesday, you kiss a stranger; on Wednesday, you sneeze for a letter; on a Thursday, for something better; on a Friday, you sneeze for sorrow; on a Saturday, your sweetheart tomorrow; on a Sunday, your safety seek, the devil will have you the whole of the week.

Humans need not sneeze alone: many other animals can, too, including cats and dogs. But never, ever, try to stop or even muffle your sneezes. It could make a devil down your throat seem mild. With all of the force trapped in a sneeze, stopping the explosion could burst a blood vessel, fracture your nose, damage sinuses, and even rupture your eardrum or cause brain damage.

While the rain has helped to alleviate the pollen problem, I expect that sneezes will never go out of vogue, nor will or should we ever prevent them. The best that I can do is wish you pre-emptive good health and blessings for the next time Nature tickles your nose.


Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.