Despite all our advances in technology, researchers are stumped when it comes to answering the question of whether it’s possible to sneeze while you are sleeping.
When pressed, they’ll admit that they’ve never observed it, even after studying hundreds of study participants. But just because they haven’t seen it with their own eyes, does that mean it didn’t happen?
For a mind-bending discussion of whether something exists even if it can never be observed, check out this explanation of Schrodinger’s Cat.
Why Do We Sneeze?
There are three main reasons to explain the phenomenon of sneezing:
- Foreign particles make their way to the mucous membranes of the nasal passage. To do this, they first have to get through all of your nose hair. The next time you curse your nose hair, stop and thank it for blocking the majority of your sneezes.
- If you sufficiently irritate the nerve endings in your face (tweezing eyebrows can accomplish this, and so can tickling the roof of your mouth), it also stimulates the nasal nerve, resulting in this outcome.
- Photic sneeze reflex: exposure to bright light, especially sunlight, can trigger a response in those with a specific gene.
One would think there would be other factors, but it comes down to only those two.
Can We Sneeze While Sleeping?
The current consensus is a resounding no. The theory is that we may do it while we’re in bed, but our bodies briefly wake up for this biological response to happen. As far as we know, it’s not possible to do it while being unconscious.
How the Brain Suppresses a Sneeze
One theory about why you’ll likely never observe a sleeping person sneezing has to do with the way our brains shut down during sleep. This happens in preparation for REM sleep, the stage of our sleep cycle where dreaming occurs. It’s characterized by “rapid eye movement” in which the eyeballs dart wildly about under your eyelids.
This brain shutdown is a crucial survival mechanism because it prevents us from acting out our dreams during REM.
It’s also a survival mechanism. By making our bodies less responsive to outside stimuli, we can be assured that we’ll be able to reach deep stages of sleep. Still, if the external triggers are threatening enough, like the smell of smoke or a loud noise, for example, we’ll still wake up.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why can’t I sneeze?
Ironically, people may struggle with this when they feel the urge most strongly. Often a cold or flu virus can suppress sneezing, which makes it that much more satisfying when one escapes. Other causes could be linked to OCD as well as overthinking it. If you’re having a difficulty completing an “Achoo!”, a whiff of pepper could do the trick.
Can you cough while sleeping?
This question at least has a definitive answer. No, you can’t cough while you’re asleep. If you observe someone coughing that appears to be asleep, it’s because their body has woken up to complete a cough.
This observation is what also makes researchers theorize that if you sneeze, you’re also in an awake state.
Do the stages of sleep play a role in nighttime sneezing?
Indirectly, yes. For example, in the early stages of sleep, you’re not resting deeply yet. Therefore, even the slightest stimuli can wake you. If there’s pet dander, pollen or something else in the air that could trigger sneezing, your body is more likely to react to it.
However, as we move into deeper stages, our reactions to the outer world become less pronounced. For example, if someone touches our hand when we’re just drifting off, we are more likely to wake up than if that person touched us during REM or another deep stage of the sleep cycle.
From this, we conclude that it’s more likely to wake up for a sneeze in an early stage of light sleep than a later stage of deep sleeping.
It appears that even though there’s not 100 percent conclusive evidence, we can surmise that it isn’t possible to start sneezing while we’re asleep. If you see someone sneeze who appears to be asleep, you can bet they’re not sleeping, and instead, they’re pretending to snooze!
Sources and References:
- 11 Surprising Sneezing Facts – webmd.com
- Can humans sneeze while sleeping? – scienceillustrated.com.au
Jill Zwarensteyn is the editor for Sleep Advisor and a certified sleep science coach. She is enthusiastic about providing helpful and engaging information on all things sleep and wellness.
Based in Los Angeles, she is an experienced writer and journalist who enjoys spending her free time at the beach, hiking, reading, or exploring new places around town.
She’s also an avid traveler who has a personal goal of being able to successfully sleep on an airplane someday.