Medical Mysteries


Written by Fred Hilton
Story: Fred Hilton

Sneezing and ‘Bless you’—hang on to your soul

Whenever most of us hear a sneeze, we have an urge to say, “Bless you.” It doesn’t matter if you know the other person, it’s an unwritten rule you must say it. There are several theories on how that practice got started.

One is it came from a time when people thought the soul was formed of air residing in the head. According to the Everyday Mysteries website, “a sneeze, therefore, might accidentally expel the spirit from the body unless God blessed you and prevented this from occurring. Some ancient cultures also thought sneezing forced evil spirits out of the body, endangering others because these spirits might now enter their bodies. The blessing was bestowed to protect both the person who sneezed and others around him.”

Again, this was rejected, particularly by people who use lots of pepper and wanted to keep their souls.

A more recent idea is your heart stops and “Bless you” gets it going again. That doesn’t happen, either. says. “However, it feels like the heart has stopped because immediately prior to the sneeze, a great deal of pressure builds up in the chest, and that short-lived spike affects the rhythm of your heartbeat…it certainly doesn’t keep the heart from beating.”

There are many other fun facts about sneezing or “sternutation” if you want to impress somebody. For example, sneezes can travel at a speed of 100 mph and the wet spray can spread five feet. Also, many of us sneeze when exposed to sudden bright light.

Back to the practice of saying, “Bless you.” It goes back to the sixth century from Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great). At that time, bubonic plague (the Black Death) was rampant and claimed an estimated 25 million to 50 million people. One of the first symptoms of Black Death was coughing or sneezing, so Pope Gregory I suggested people say, “God bless you” or “Bless you” in the hopes the sneezer would not succumb to the disease. Or, maybe it was his version of a final blessing.

In any event, if you have a fit of sternutation, your soul won’t escape and your heart won’t stop. A “Bless you” couldn’t hurt, though.

“Does your heart stop when you sneeze?” Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts from the Library of Congress. “Does your heart stop for an instant when you sneeze?” Department of Otolaryngology/Head and Neck Surgery, University of Arkansas for Medical Services. “Does Your Heart Really Stop When You Sneeze?” by Stephanie Pappas, life science contributor, Live Science, March 21, 2010. “Does Your Heart Stop When You Sneeze?”, July 2017. “True or False: Your Heart Stops Beating When You Sneeze (and Other Common Beliefs About Sneezing,” Health Library, Winchester Hospital, Winchester, Massachusetts.

About the author

Fred Hilton

Fred Hilton spent thirty-six years as the chief public relations officer/spokesman for James Madison University in Virginia and ten years prior as a reporter and editor for The Roanoke Times in Roanoke, Virginia. He is now happily retired in The Villages with his interior designer wife, Leta, their Cadillac Escalade golf cart, and their dog, Paris. (Yes, that makes her Paris Hilton).

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