The Surprising Story Behind the Sound of Sneezes

We all sneeze. It’s often beyond our control — a “semi-autonomous, convulsive expulsion of air from the lungs through the nose and mouth” as Wikipedia antiseptically describes it. For one reason or another, our body senses the need to expel mucus from our nasal cavities. But you already knew that; again, we all sneeze.

But not all of us achoo.

Sneezes come with sound — “achoo” in English, “hatschi” in German, “hakshon” in Japanese; the list goes on. The word we use for the sound is onomatopoetic — it imitates the sound that we associate with the sneeze itself. We English speakers think that the sneeze noises sounds like “achoo,” and, hence, “achoo” is the word we use to describe the sound of a sneeze.

Except: That’s probably backward. In reality, the sound we make by sneezing — the sound we can’t control, at least — is minimal.  But because we think a sneeze should sound like “achoo,” that’s the sound we end up making when we sneeze. Don’t quite follow? Let’s dig a little deeper.

In 2013, partially deaf journalist Charlie Swinbourne wrote a blog post about the sound of sneezes. If that feels like an odd thing for a partially deaf journalist to be interested in, there’s a reason for Swinbourne’s interest. He can hear just enough to detect, in his words, “a distinctive difference in the way different people sneeze.” And what he noticed was, again in his words, that  “hearing people tend to make the ah-choo sound, but deaf people don’t.”

In other words, the “achoo” is not built into the act of sneezing itself. “Inserting words into sneezes – and our responses such as “bless you” – are cultural habits we pick up along the way,” per the BBC. The sound of the sneeze isn’t innate; it’s something we pick up along the way. Popular Science explains: “Sneezes do make some sound that people aren’t able to control, but people are able to modify the sound, depending on what seems socially appropriate.”

Deaf people can’t hear the sound of sneezing and therefore, never pick up that “cultural habit.” As a result, per the BBC, “deaf people, particular users of sign language, don’t think to add the English word ‘achoo’ to this most natural of actions.” Or, as Swinbourne puts it, “[hearing people], as they sense a sneeze coming, the hearing person’s brain sends out an alert saying: ‘EMERGENCY! YOU ARE ABOUT TO SNEEZE. IN PUBLIC. MAKE THIS SOUND NORMAL.’ And, in a split second, they add SFX: Ah-choo.”

That said, we probably can’t control what our sneezes sound like at a conscious level — so don’t feel bad if you have an odd or loud achoo.

Bonus fact: Some people — about 25% of the population — feel the urge to sneeze if they look at a bright light. It’s officially called the “photic sneeze reflex ” but is often called “Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioopthalmic Outburst Syndrome.” The selection of words, if you ignore the word “Dominant” and split “Helioopthalmic” in half, gives the condition its acronym-driven nickname — “ACHOO Syndrome.”

From the Archives: Thinking Zs: The bonus item explains why we don’t sneeze in our sleep.