Can You Sneeze While You Sleep?

How Sneezing Is Stifled

Can you sneeze while asleep? Whether you are curious about your own unconscious activities or if you wonder if that middle-of-the-night sneeze signals a good time to chat with your bed partner, you may want to know if you can sneeze while sleeping. Learn how the body may suppress sneezing during sleep due to a lack of awareness of body sensations, including irritation to the nose.

Sick Woman in Bed
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Sleep Stages and Awareness May Play a Role in Sneezing

Sleep is not a uniform state. Instead, it represents a spectrum of different sleep stages. Throughout the night, it is normal to cycle through these sleep stages at regular intervals. The stages differ in the electrical activity of the brain, which corresponds to varying levels of consciousness. Lighter stages of sleep correlate with easier awakenings and transitions to awareness of the sleep environment. It is also possible to suppress awareness of the body. This might extend to recognition of a stimulus, or ability, to sneeze.

The Reflex of Sneezing to Clear Nasal Irritants in Sleep

It would seem to be a reflexive action to sneeze. It is nearly impossible (and certainly uncomfortable) to stifle a poorly timed sneeze. In general, when you feel a tickle in your nose, your body responds by automatically sneezing to clear the nasal passage of the irritants. The sudden expulsion of air can provide nearly instant relief. It seems logical that this reflex would still work in sleep.

Nevertheless, after years of watching people sleep in a sleep laboratory, I have never observed someone sneeze while sleeping. This likely requires some level of consciousness on the part of the person sneezing that does not exist during any stage of sleep. In other words, if you aren’t awake enough to recognize that your nose is tickled, you can’t sneeze. This would imply a level of conscious control of sneezing, however, which does not seem to exist. As a result, there may be more to the story.

Suppressing Sneezes in Sleep May Occur at the Brainstem

If there is a lack of sneezing during sleep, it may be due to a different phenomenon entirely. Normal body processes—such as hunger, thirst, and the need to urinate or defecate—are typically suppressed during sleep. It might be reasonable to conclude that sneezing is suppressed as well.

In fact, most likely from the level of the brainstem, the awareness and input from the body are interrupted during sleep. How or why this occurs, or even what part of the brain might further regulate its control, is not fully understood. It seems logical that this suppression would occur at the level of the brainstem, however, as this is the common pathway from the brain to the body. In sleep, it may be possible to disconnect the higher brain functions (or cerebral cortex) from actions of the body, including the ability to sneeze

As we continue to learn about sleep and the brain, we may finally be able to definitively understand why sneezing does not seem to occur out of sleep. It will be interesting to learn the mechanism of how this natural bodily function is suppressed. In the meanwhile, if someone sneezes, it's a good bet that they do so while awake.

2 Sources
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  2. Kancherla BS, Upender R, Collen JF, et al. What is the role of sleep in physician burnoutJournal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. 2020;16(5):807-810. doi:10.5664/jcsm.8412

By Brandon Peters, MD
Brandon Peters, MD, is a board-certified neurologist and sleep medicine specialist.