It’s the question we’ve all at some point asked ourselves, and yet have perhaps never chased up the science behind the myth. That myth being that if we sneeze with our eyes open, our eyes will duly come popping out of their sockets. If that sounds silly, it’s because it absolutely is.
According to a top ENT Specialist in Singapore, while sneezing with our eyes open is an uncommon occurrence, it’s not impossible for it to happen, nor will it send our eyes flying from our heads. But why is our natural instinct to keep our eyes shut if it’s not necessary to do so?
Well, let’s take an in-depth look at the debunked myth straight from the horse’s mouth…or nose.
What is a Sneeze?
First of all, despite the answer seeming somewhat self-explanatory, a sneeze isn’t as mundane for the body as it is for the sneezee.
A sneeze, or a sternutation, to give it its proper name, is the vigorous expulsion of foreign particles from our respiratory systems via the nose. Our bodies deem these particles to be unwelcome, and therefore, we sneeze. We all know what happens when we sneeze – we gasp and subsequently expel the irritant. However, for our bodies, there’s much more at play.
Because our bodies essentially want to protect us, when any foreign substance enters our nostrils (be it something as harmless as strong perfume, or something potentially harmful like pathogens or pollutants) the body doesn’t detect the difference. The body’s allergic reaction process naturally takes place, and chemicals are released in the body, namely histamine, which is a chemical that induces sneezing. These chemicals send out nerve signals to the brain to say, “Hey, we need these guys out of here, pronto!” Our throats close, our chests tighten, and then voila, we sneeze.
Contrary to popular belief, the fast expulsion of air and whatever unwelcome particles occur at around 10 mph as opposed to the believed 100 mph. So yes, that’s certainly not enough speed to warrant our eyeballs being dislodged. However, amazingly, the body can drive out up to 5,000 droplets in a single sneeze. If you have a cold, those droplets may contain bacteria too.
It doesn’t end there for the body either. Muscles in the esophagus, face, chest, and strangely, our sphincters, all tighten unconsciously and so do our eyes. These are all natural reflexes of the body, but if we can sneeze with our eyes open, why is it the body’s natural instinct to close them?
Eyes Wide Open
Thanks to many people across the world who clearly have too much time on their hands, we now know that it is entirely possible to sneeze with open eyes. It’s certainly not recommended however; sneezing while forcing our eyes open is at the very least painful, and in the most extreme cases, it can cause capillaries in the eyes to burst. While this is a far cry from bursting eyeballs, it won’t be by any means a pleasant experience, oh, and it looks incredibly frightening.
So, on to the why…the leading explanation for why our eyes close is because it is our body’s natural defense mechanism for keeping our eyes free from potentially harmful particles. Because the body believes the evacuated particles to be unwanted, it would be an exercise in futility if they wound up back in the body by being ingested through the eyes. Our eyes are sensitive to mucus membranes; therefore the natural response is to avoid any problems that a sneeze may bring about.
The sheer force of a sneeze is also why our eyes close pre-sneeze. Because the pressure in the sinus cavities is so great during a sneeze, the muscles in the eyes clench involuntarily.
After thousands of generations of human development, it is believed that the body has organically formed the natural reflex of closing the eyes during a sneeze. Our bodies are intelligent – they want to protect us through the simple act shutting the eyelids.
Of course, because it’s natural for us to be inquisitive, or stupid (take your pick) many people can force their eyes open during a sneeze to see the act in all its disgusting glory. Again, it’s not advisable, and for the sake of everyone else, please cover your face!