Friday Weird Science: The Deadly Sneeze

Oct 30 2009 Published by under Friday Weird Science

Sci always has all these PLANS for weird science, all these THINGS she's going to blog about. Seriously, a post on Ritalin-induced stuttering priapism (heh...heh...) awaits! But then, Mo posts something like this on Twitter, and Sci just HAS to cover it. It's too weird! Though it's not ACTUAL science, it still qualifies. How many people freakin' die from sneezes?!
"Man died after sneeze, inquest told"
Ah, sneezes. You think they're totally safe...

So how does one die from a sneeze?
Well, you don't die FROM the sneeze. You die from complications of sneezing.
A sneeze is a violent expulsion of air from the lungs, This can occur because you're sick with something, or just because something tickles your nose. In this case, a 79-year-old man sneezed violently. He wasn't healthy, he has both diabetes and chronic heart conditions, and because of the heart condition, was being treated with Warfarin, a chemical which prevents blood from clotting. This is a good thing when you have a heart condition, you don't want any stray clots going anywhere. Clots in the lungs can cause pulmonary embolism, a very deadly condition. Clots in the brain can cause stroke, also potentially deadly. And of course a blood clot in one of the main arteries in the heart can cause a massive heart attack. So the doctors were doing the right thing, and preventing as many clots as possible.
So what happened? When the man sneezed, the violence of it, whether due to change in pressure or him throwing himself forward, resulted in something called a subdural hematoma. This is when a blood vessel on top of the brain, in the membranes surrounding it (specifically under the dura mater, the nice thick membrane closest to your skull), ruptures, and blood builds up in that area. Usually you have a clotting mechanism to stop you from losing too much blood, but because this patient was on warfarin for other reasons, his blood wasn't able to clot very well. This means that the hematoma spread, and with his coronary artery disease, the man died two days later.
Unfortunately, this means that nothing could really have been done for him. You can't stop a sneeze, and the possibility of the hematoma with sneeze was vanishingly low compared to the possibility of a blood clot, he HAD to be on that warfarin. But it's going to make Sci, for one, worry just a little bit every time she sneezes...
And on a curiosity note, is there any scientific evidence that holding sneezes back is BAD for you? Anyone? I've always wondered...

9 responses so far

  • I don't have any scientific proof, but I've been told (because I hold back sneezes) that you could rupture your eardrum. I blame elementary school for my blocked-sneeze reflex. Allergies and not enough tissues in class. Make a mess, or pop my ears? Hmmm...

  • bravo the cat says:

    Ever notice that some people always have big, violent sneezes and some people have these itty bitty, tweeny weeny, quiet sneezes that couldn't possibly be the least bit satisfying or it genetic or environmental?

  • SVP says:

    My mom always told me that if you stop sneezes, you will lose your sense of smell/taste. Apparently her mom stopped sneezes in church and temporarily lost her sense of smell.
    Not sure if I believe the old wives' tale, though.

  • Rowan says:

    When I was in the third grade I had a teacher who would hold her nose when she sneezed. One day the particular practice caused her to pass out in class when she sneezed. That made for quite the exciting day.

  • Merry says:

    I have a question. Can a person really pass out from sneezing too much? I have never heard of that and I am quite curious. Thanks!

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  • Guy says:

    So basically it wasn't the sneeze, nor was it the hematoma... it was the Warfarin that killed this guy. Chalk another up to iatrogenic disease.

  • person says:

    i was told that you can sneeze 36 times and die.. i was wondering if that was true.

  • Debby says:

    Dear Person~I have been sneezing for about 20 hours today off and on. But sometimes the bouts are so long I actually started counting. I have counted up to 57 sneezes in a row. My lats are killing me, my nose is drippy, and despite 12 Benedryl today, I'm still sneezing. I am also alive. So for the average person NOT on blood thinners, I think you can live through far more sneezes than 36. But you may not enjoy it!

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