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Gesundheit! 62 Superstitions and Myths About Sneezing

Ansel is curious about other cultures and enjoys discussing philosophy and debating various beliefs and superstitions.

Achoo! From portending ill to bringing luck, superstitions about sneezing range the world over.

Achoo! From portending ill to bringing luck, superstitions about sneezing range the world over.

What Does It Mean When You Sneeze?

On a biological level, sneezing is the body's way of trying to keep you healthy. The occasional sternutation is actually a sign of good health because it cleanses the nasal cavity by expelling mucus that contains irritants or foreign particles.

When something gets into your nose that shouldn't be there or triggers your brain's "sneeze center" in another way, your brain sends out a series of signals that culminate in a sneeze. This sneeze is meant to expel whatever it was that irritated your nose in the first place—in a spray of saliva and mucus, of course.

What that sneeze means for your job promotion or your relationship, however, depends on who you ask. Here are some of the most common superstitions and beliefs about sneezes.

Superstitions About Sneezing

Since ancient times, various superstitions and beliefs have been associated with sneezing. While in some parts of the world, a sneeze is considered auspicious, in certain cultures sneezing is considered inauspicious and a bad omen. In other cultures, sneezing is considered a sign from a supreme power conceived as a warning about a calamity in the future.

Though some parallel beliefs associated with sneezing do exist globally, superstitions about sneezing vary drastically around the world. What's seen as good luck or a good omen in one culture might be just the opposite in another! Furthermore, sneezing superstitions are not confined to just humans. There are even superstitious beliefs in certain cultures about cats sneezing!

13 Cultural Beliefs About Sneezing

  • The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans believed sneezing was a sign of the Gods revealing the future. A sneeze could be either a good omen or bad omen, bringing good luck or misfortune.
  • In the Middle Ages, Europeans saw sneezing as a bad omen. This stemmed from the belief that life was tied to breath. The significant amount of breath expelled during a sneeze led people in the Middle Ages to believe something fatal would occur in the days ahead.
  • In Polish culture, sneezing is believed to be an inauspicious sign. The belief is that when a person sneezes, their mother-in-law is talking ill of them. If the person who sneezes is unmarried, they may have a bad relationship with their mother-in-law once married. This superstition has become a popular belief in the modern age.
  • Superstitions associated with sneezing in Eastern Asia are rather diverse. However, a parallel belief about sneezing in Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, and Chinese culture attributes a great deal to gender. A popular superstitious belief prevalent in East Asian countries is if a person is being talked about behind their back, it causes them to sneeze loudly. Furthermore, the number of sneezes dictates if something bad or good is being said. One sneeze means people are saying good things about you; two sneezes in a row means people are saying bad things about you; three sneezes in a row is a sign that someone is in love with you or you may fall in love soon. Four or more sneezes mean a calamity will come upon the person or their family.
  • In Islamic culture, beliefs are based on prophetic teachings and tradition. In Muslim countries, it is customary for the person that sneezes to say “Al-hamdu- Lillah” (“Praise be to God”), and his/her companions should utter the words “Yarhamuk-Allaha” ("May God have mercy on you") to which the sneezer should respond with “Yahdeekum Allah Wa Yuslihu Baalakum” (“May Allah guide you”).
  • In Indian culture, sneezing before going to work or sneezing as you step out of your home is considered inauspicious. It is customary to pause when you sneeze and drink a little water to break the jinx and avoid misfortune.
  • In Italian culture, a cat sneezing is considered good luck, the belief being that it expels bad luck and brings prosperity. Moreover, if a bride hears a cat sneeze on her wedding day, it means she will have a happy marriage. However, if a cat sneezes three times, your whole family will come down with a cold!

The following beliefs are more widespread and can't be attributed to a single culture or society.

  • It is considered good luck when a person sneezes between noon and midnight, while in certain cultures the same is considered a bad omen.
  • When two individuals sneeze at the same time, it is believed the Gods are happy and will bless people with good health.
  • Sneezing when you are getting dressed in the morning is considered bad luck, the belief being misfortune may occur during the day.
  • It is considered good luck if you turn your head to the right while sneezing and bad luck if you turn your head to the left.
  • In certain ancient cultures, individuals who sneezed were congratulated, as it was believed the person sneezing was freed from the clutches of an evil spirit.
  • It is believed when two or more people are having a conversation and one of them sneezes, it reveals truth in what was being said.

While in this digital age, people tend to see sneezing as a spasmodic, involuntary response due to the presence of foreign particles, an allergy, or cold, in the back of their mind lurk questions of possibilities that cannot be explained. Might it be good luck or bad luck?

How to Sneeze in Different Languages

Is Sneezing a Good Omen or a Bad One?

The following superstitions are from a series of talks, debates, and discussions I've had with people from varied cultures over the years.

21 Ways Sneezing Is a Good Omen:

  1. You will prosper in your professional life.
  2. You will make new friends and build fruitful relationships.
  3. You will overcome difficulties.
  4. You will make the right decision(s).
  5. You will be able to convince people.
  6. You will do everything with a positive approach.
  7. Your chances of winning a lottery jackpot are exceedingly high.
  8. You will have a life-changing conversation with a stranger.
  9. You will buy something very expensive, most likely property or a house.
  10. You will receive a large sum of money.
  11. Somebody in your family will give you good news.
  12. You will meet someone you haven’t met in years.
  13. All your plans for the future will be carried out smoothly.
  14. You will be offered a high-profile job with a high pay package.
  15. An unexpected guest may arrive at your doorstep, bringing happiness and joy.
  16. You will meet influential people.
  17. You won’t get anxious and worried in the future.
  18. You will lead and motivate others.
  19. You are likely to find your soulmate.
  20. You will bring calm and help make peace in a situation filled with turmoil.
  21. You will take responsibility and delegate that responsibility wisely.

21 Ways Sneezing Is a Bad Omen:

  1. You will lose your job in the days ahead.
  2. People in your family are gossiping and saying bad things about you.
  3. You will make a hasty decision that will cause your downfall.
  4. You will suffer a huge financial loss.
  5. A secret you have hidden for many years will be revealed.
  6. Someone is conspiring, planning and plotting against you.
  7. The death of a loved one is likely to occur soon.
  8. You will despair and lose hope.
  9. Your relationship with a person you love and trust will turn sour in a fight.
  10. Someone at your workplace will ruin your prospects of a promotion.
  11. Your marital life will be plagued with discord, and you may part ways with your partner.
  12. Your plans will be ruined by misfortune.
  13. A person you do not like or care for will tarnish your image.
  14. You will suffer from anxiety and depression.
  15. A guest staying over at your house will bring negativity into your life.
  16. An argument will break your ties with family members or a friend.
  17. You will be filled with envy and hate.
  18. You will get addicted to something, or addiction will ruin you completely.
  19. You will start doubting people you trust.
  20. You will be in debt.
  21. You will suffer because of somebody else’s wrongdoing.

So what do you say? Are you superstitious?

We might not be our cutest when we sneeze, but it's an essential bodily function!

We might not be our cutest when we sneeze, but it's an essential bodily function!

Sneezing Myths—True or False?

Along with these superstitions about sneezes, there are also a couple of fairly prevalent myths about them. Which of the following are true and which are false?

You Can't Sneeze in Your Sleep

True. The body's muscles and nerves relax during REM sleep (when dreams occur), in turn shutting down the body's reflex reactions. However, you may still sneeze during the periods when you move between REM and non-REM sleep.

If You Sneeze With Your Eyes Open, They Will Pop Out

False. Thank goodness this is absolutely untrue. While the blood pressure behind your eyes may increase a bit when you sneeze, it doesn't create anywhere close to enough force to pop your eyeballs out of your head. Closing your eyes when you sneeze is an involuntary reflex that serves no real purpose.

Bright Light Can Make You Sneeze

True. This reaction—known as the photic sneeze reflex—affects up to 35% of us. It usually occurs when we move from dim to bright light (e.g. exiting a movie theater during daytime hours). It's possible that this reflex is genetic, but scientists still don't know for sure.

Plucking Your Eyebrows Can Make You Sneeze

True. Strange as it may seem, tweezing your eyebrows can irritate your trigeminal nerve, leading in turn to the irritation of your nasal nerve endings and culminating in a sneeze. But don't worry. If this problem plagues you, there is a potential solution—put pressure on the eyebrow as you tweeze to short-circuit the response and avoid the sneeze!

Your Heart Stops When You Sneeze

False. Another nope on this one. Sneezing does cause your chest to contract—briefly constricting your blood flow and possibly changing the rhythm of your heart for a moment—but it definitely doesn't cause your heart to stop, even briefly.

Sneezes Travel at About 100 Miles Per Hour

True. Sneezes are your body's way of expelling whatever is irritating your nose, and when it comes to protecting you, your body doesn't mess around. Sneezes can reach up to 100 miles per hour (twice as fast as a cough) and expel as many as 100,000 droplets, and the germs that go along with them) in a single go.

Sneezes Always Come in Threes

False. While it is somewhat rare to sneeze just once, there's no set number for how many times we sneeze. Most people sneeze more than once because the first sneeze just didn't do the job. The more times you sneeze, the worse the irritant in your nose (or the wimpier your sneeze).

Why Are There So Many Superstitions About Sneezing?

Myths often build the foundation for different types of superstitious beliefs. It may sound strange, but many of the superstitions prevalent in ancient times are still prevalent in various cultures today. This is because superstitions and age-old beliefs in mythology and folklore are often passed down through generations to the point where they become inextricably entwined with that culture.

The Origins of Superstitions About Sneezing

Why Do You Say "Bless You" When Someone Sneezes?

In many cultures, it is a customary practice (practically a social reflex) to wish a sneezer well, for example, by saying "God bless you" or "Gesundheit," among many others. But why do we have special expressions for sneezes and not coughs or burps?

It All Started With the Plague . . .

The expression “God Bless You” in association with sneezing is usually attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who used it in the 6th century during the Plague of Justinian (which, during the two centuries it continued to recur, caused the deaths of approximately 25–50 million people, or 13–26% of the world's population at the time).

One of the notable symptoms prevalent among individuals before their death by this epidemic was sneezing. Thus, the Pope made a law that anybody who sneezed must be blessed with the divine words.

. . . Or Was It Evil Spirits?

Another possible origin for the expression "God bless you" (most often shortened to "bless you," nowadays) was that some people believed sneezing caused the soul to be expelled from the body, and saying "God bless you" would stop the devil from claiming it. Others believed the opposite—that sneezing allowed evil spirits to enter a person's body, and saying "God bless you" would keep them out.

Still others believed the somehow-still-common misconception that your heart stops when you sneeze, and saying "bless you" was a way of welcoming them back to life.


© 2018 Ansel Pereira