Inside a packed train, while attending mass, or in a room with a sleeping infant are a few instances where you might attempt to stifle a sneeze — especially if yours tend to be loud and forceful. If this sounds like something you would do (because you know nakakahiya), we suggest you let it rip from now on especially after we read what happened to a man who did stop himself from sneezing.
The man, 34 years old, took a trip to the emergency room after experiencing an unusual set of symptoms. His voice had changed, his neck was swollen and, to top it off, there was an odd popping sensation in his neck. Several ear, nose, and throat specialists detailed the incident in a case report published in the journal BMJ Case Reports.
The report described the patient as “previously fit and well.” His vital signs were stable, he didn’t have a fever nor was he showing signs of respiratory distress. His complaints, however, came after he attempted to stifle a particularly forceful sneeze by “pinching the nose and holding his mouth closed.” It turns out he had ruptured his throat by stopping the sneeze.
When he was x-rayed, doctors found “streaks of air” embedded in the soft tissue of his neck, conditions known as subcutaneous emphysema and pneumomediastinum,” Colin Dwyer reported in an article on NPR. The air that should have been expelled by the sneeze tore through and was lodged in his throat.
Incidences like this are rare, the report said, but it does happen. “[A sneeze] is powerful,” Eli Meltzer, an allergist who is co-director of Allergy and Asthma Medical Group and Research Center, told NPR. “We actually blow out the sneeze at 40 mph. The discharge can go 20 feet. And it's said that 40,000 droplets can come out when you spritz with the mouth and the nose when you sneeze.”
Imagine the pressure you're stopping when you sneeze. “If you keep the mouth or nose closed, the generated pressure will back up into your head (sinuses), nasal cavity, or down the throat back into the chest,” Dr. Erich Voigt, a clinical associate professor in the department of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health, explained to Men’s Health.
Aside from rupturing your throat, a stifled sneeze can also rupture eardrums, which in severe cases can cause permanent hearing loss. In rare cases, stopping a sneeze can also cause popped blood vessels in the eye, nose, and eardrum.
As to what happened to the man who ruptured his throat, he was discharged from the hospital after a week with doctors' advice to “avoid obstructing both nostrils while sneezing,” according to the NPR.
The man's experience is a lesson for all of us. “Simultaneously obstructing both nostrils and mouth during sneezing should be avoided,” said the case report.
So, let it out! But please do make sure you sneeze into a tissue or even your elbow (and not your hand where you can spread germs onto door knobs and via handshakes). After all, it's a potent force from speed to droplets.