Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is sneezing?

Sneezing, or sternutation, is a strong, sudden, uncontrolled burst of air through the nose and mouth. Sneezing is caused by an irritation to the nasal lining or the throat. Usually, sneezing is the result of dust or an allergen entering the nose.

While sneezing is often annoying, it is usually not serious. It may occur as part of an allergic reaction or may accompany an infection or illness. Sneezing may also result from a drug interaction, direct stimulation of the nose, such as by a nasal spray or touching of nasal mucosa, or from some other irritant. Sneezing may also accompany vasomotor rhinitis.

Sneezing generally can be prevented by avoiding irritants, such as dust or other allergens. If sneezing results from allergies or infections, removing the allergen, taking allergy medication, such as antihistamines or nasal sprays, or treating the infection will usually resolve the sneezing.

Seek prompt medical care if your sneezing is persistent, does not respond to treatment, or is causing you concern.

What other symptoms might occur with sneezing?

Sneezing may accompany other symptoms, which vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition.

Allergy or respiratory symptoms that may occur along with sneezing

Sneezing may accompany other allergic or respiratory symptoms including:

Other symptoms that may occur along with sneezing

Sneezing may accompany other symptoms including:

Symptoms that might indicate a serious condition

In some cases, sneezing may occur with other symptoms that might indicate a serious condition, such as a severe infection, that should be evaluated immediately in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have sneezing along with other serious symptoms, including high fever (higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit).

What causes sneezing?

Sneezing is caused by irritation to the nose or throat. Generally, this irritation results from a physical or airborne irritant, such as dust or allergens.

In cases in which your sneezing is caused by allergies, avoiding allergens or taking over the counter allergy medication may help resolve the sneezing. In other cases, sneezing may require treatment by a medical professional.

Sneezing can also be caused by an infection, such as the common cold. Less commonly, sneezing can be related to a condition called vasomotor rhinitis, a stuffy or runny nose not caused by allergies or infection. The underlying cause for this condition frequently is not known.

Infectious causes of sneezing

Sneezing may be caused by many infections including:

Other causes of sneezing

Sneezing can also be caused by nasal irritants or allergies including:

  • Allergic rhinitis (stuffy or runny nose caused by allergies)
  • Chemical compounds that include phosphine, chlorine, and iodine
  • Deviated nasal septum
  • Drug withdrawal
  • Enlarged tonsils and adenoids
  • Mold, dander, dust or pollen
  • Nasal sprays
  • Touching the inside of your nose
  • Vasomotor rhinitis

Serious or life-threatening causes of sneezing

In some cases, sneezing may be a symptom of a serious condition that should be immediately evaluated by a healthcare provider. These include serious infections accompanied by fever.

Questions for diagnosing the cause of sneezing

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner will ask you several questions related to your sneezing including:

  • Do you have allergies?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?
  • Do you have pets?
  • Do you have trouble controlling your sneezing with over-the-counter medication?
  • Does your sneezing appear to be seasonal?
  • How often do you sneeze, and for how long?
  • What medications are you taking?
  • When did your sneezing start?

What are the potential complications of sneezing?

Sneezing is generally not life threatening and does not lead to complications. At worst, sneezing is generally a source of annoyance. In persistent cases, however, sneezing can interfere with daily life. Although it is rare, sneezing can be due to serious diseases or infections, and failure to seek treatment for persistent sneezing can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Absenteeism from work or school
  • Chronic irritation of the respiratory tract
  • Difficulty performing daily tasks
  • Spread of infection
Was this helpful?
  1. Sneezing. Medline Plus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
  2. Allergic rhinitis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  3. Collins RD. Differential Diagnosis in Primary Care, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams & Williams, 2012.
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 3
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