Sneezing has long been the cause of curious questions and even consternation for some. The tradition of saying “bless you” or “gesundheit” after someone sneezes stems from ancient times and is an example of the superstition that has surrounded the reflex of sneezing for many years. In the past, it was a common belief that you expelled evil spirits with sneezing, or that the heart stopped beating for an instant. The old wives' tale that your eyeballs will pop out if you sneeze with your eyes open is yet another attempt to understand the mystery of the sneeze.
A sneeze is a reflex, just like jerking your knee at the thump of a doctor's hammer, or snatching your hand away from a heat source to prevent burning. When particles of dust, pollen, or other foreign substances irritate the nasal membranes, your body tries to expel the invaders with a sneeze. Most people sneeze when they have a cold because the body is trying to rid itself of the virus and extra mucus that comes with this common ailment. For some, looking at a bright light triggers a sneeze.
Closing your eyes when you sneeze is another such reflexive action. There are many theories about the purpose of this reflex, but no proof about which one is correct. It is possible that your eyelids involuntarily close as a way to protect your eyes from the germs or particles being expelled from the nose and mouth. Also, a sneeze forces some air backward from the nose through the tear ducts. This puff of air into the eye may cause you to shut your eyes tightly during a sneeze in much the same way as the old glaucoma test in the eye doctor's office.
There are people who are capable of keeping their eyes open when they sneeze, proof positive that your eyeballs will remain firmly in your head regardless of your eyelid position. Some have also theorized that it may be possible to train yourself not to close your eyes. This theory is difficult to test as some individuals are actually born without the reflex to shut their eyes with a sneeze.
If you wear contacts, closing your eyes during may help avoid displacement of your lenses. With glasses, this is not a worry, but you may find your lenses a bit foggy when you open your eyes afterwards. Many people sneeze quite violently, requiring them to hold their eyeglasses in place to keep them from flying off their faces.
Regardless of why you sneeze, or whether you keep your eyes open or shut, the most important thing to remember is to cover your nose and mouth. This is especially important during cold and flu season as people sneezing openly into the air spread many viruses to those around them. Covering with the crook of your elbow is a great way to contain the germs without transferring them to your hands and subsequently onto the door handles and railings you touch before your next hand washing.
Whether you keep your eyes open or close them tightly, there's nothing quite like the sense of relief that comes with a good sneeze. No need to worry about loose eyeballs or evil spirits, just enjoy your next sneeze and rest assured that the worst it could signal is a nasty bout with the flu.