Blog: Achoo and the Sun

Burt Ross

No, this is not a Disney animated short about a little boy and the sun. Rather it is a story about my daughter the doctor (a proud Jewish parent never forgets to tell the world his kid is a doctor) who the other day looked up at the sun and let forth “achoo.” One “achoo” was not the end of it, and the more she observed the essence of our solar system, the more she let forth.

I did the same. I looked skyward and produced an “achoo” of my own. Neither of us had a cold, but somehow simply by looking at a star 93 million miles away, we were able to induce an “achoo.” The sun is one powerful force. I can’t make somebody sneeze two feet away.

I asked my daughter why the sun was making us sneeze. She had no idea. For this I sent her to medical school. So I did what I always do—I turned to Google without which I would know absolutely nothing.

Google reports “the photic sneeze effect is a genetic tendency to begin sneezing, sometimes many times consecutively due to naso-ocular reflex.” (What a load of mumbo jumbo!) “Although the syndrome is thought to affect about 18% to 35% of the human population, it is relatively harmless and not widely studied,” the Google overview continues. 

Wise men have been trying unsuccessfully to figure out this phenomenon since 350 BCE when the Greek philosopher Aristotle hypothesized that the sun’s heat caused sweating inside the nose which in turn triggered a sneeze in order to remove the moisture. Aristotle might have been a great philosopher, but when it came to the study of the nasal cavity, he knew nothing.

The English philosopher Francis Bacon also should have stuck to philosophy. He did disprove Aristotle’s theory by closing his eyes when facing the sun which resulted in no sneezing. But that is where his brilliance ended. Bacon postulated that by looking at the sun’s light, the eyes watered, the moisture seeped into the nose and irritated it thereby causing a sneeze. Wrong again.

The exact cause of this phenomenon is not entirely known, which, quite frankly, is fine by me. I am delighted that nobody is spending my money to study this phenomenon. To me it is very simple—if you do not wish to sneeze, then don’t look at the sun. Period!