Most people underestimate the power of their sneezes. Once the process begins, air and mucus can be pushed up through the nose and mouth at speeds reaching up to 100 miles per hour. And, if you try to suppress the sneeze, that force is still exerted, and can potentially cause serious damage. One man learned that lesson the hard way.
A 34-year-old man, who was deemed healthy before the incident, tried to suppress one of his sneezes. When the force wasn’t able to easily exit through his mouth and nose, it instead ripped through the soft tissue in his throat, leading to a rupture and landing him in the hospital.
A case study that was published in the British Medical Journal described the man as “previously fit and well,” but things took a turn when he relied on his usual technique, clamping his mouth shut with one hand and pinching his nose with the other, causing the rupture.
“This 34-year-old chap said he was always trying to hold his sneeze because he thinks it is very unhygienic to sneeze into the atmosphere or into someone’s face,” said case report author Wanding Yang. “That means he’s been holding his sneezes for the last 30 years or so, but, this time, it was different.”
According to a report by the Washington Post, the man experienced a “popping sensation” in his neck, along with swelling and voice changes.
X-rays showed that the high amount of pressure from the sneeze tore through the soft tissue in his throat when it wasn’t able to otherwise escape through the nose and mouth.
His pharynx ruptured, and air bubbles entered the soft tissue, with the bubbles being the primary source of the popping sensation he experienced.
“It’s like forcing water through a pipe,” said otolaryngologist and chairman of the Head and Neck Institute at Cleveland Clinic Michael Benninger. “If the air can escape through your nose and mouth, that creates less pressure than forcing it through a smaller opening.”
The man was hospitalized as doctors feared an infection could develop. He was prescribed antibiotics and given a feeding tube, though was released a week later after the injury had sufficiently healed.
Other injuries have been reportedly caused by suppressed sneezes, including “a ruptured eardrum or pulled back muscles,” said Benninger. “You hear about cracked ribs,” he added.
There is also a risk of infection, as mucus can be pushed “through the eustachian tube and back into the middle ear,” said Cleveland Clinic immunologist Rachel Szekely. “You can get middle ear infections because of that.”