Common Sneezing Causes and Triggers

Sneezing (the nasoocular reflex) is often immediately associated with allergies, but there are other causes. While there are different treatments that can address the underlying cause of sneezing or inhibit the sneeze mechanism, one of the best ways to relieve sneezing is to avoid what is triggering it in the first place.

Common Causes of Sneezing
Verywell / Jessica Olah

Allergic Rhinitis

Hay fever, or allergy to pollen, mold, dander, or dust, can have you running for the tissues.

With allergic rhinitis, cells in your nasal mucous membranes release histamine. This chemical acts on various nerves within the nasal mucous membranes, which causes you to sneeze. It also causes other typical allergy-related problems, like a runny nose.​

Antihistamines, in both oral and nasal forms, are often good treatment choices for sneezing caused by allergic rhinitis. They work against the histamine that is producing the sneezing and runny nose.

You should also take physical measures to reduce the allergens that are producing the reaction. These can include ensuring your furnace filters are clean, using air filters to reduce the amount of pollen in indoor air, and washing your linens in hot water to kill dust mites.

Infections

Respiratory tract infections, such as the common cold, can also cause sneezing. Colds cause mucus production, which in turn stimulates various nerves within the nasal mucous membranes.

This is one of the reasons it can sometimes be hard to distinguish a cold from allergies.

In the case of a cold, histamine is not causing the sneezing, so most antihistamines won't help. However, those that can dry nasal secretions (like Benadryl) might. Anticholinergic nasal sprays, such as Nasal Atrovent, can also help ease sneezing.

Antihistamines combined with decongestants, analgesics, or both appear to have a small to moderate effect on cold symptoms in older children and adults, according to a 2014 study in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Irritants and Other Sneezing Triggers

Remember those old cartoons when black pepper was used to launch a character into a sneezing attack? Black pepper acts as a chemical irritant on the nerves in the nasal mucosa, which causes sneezing.

Other chemical irritants that cause sneezing include strong odors, perfumes, and tobacco smoke. These triggers cause non-allergic rhinitis, as there are no allergic antibodies behind the symptoms.

Physical irritants such as bright sunlight can also cause sneezing. The nasoocular reflex involves a connection between the eyes and nose, which causes stimulation of nerves within the nasal mucous membranes. Sneezing is the end result.

Sneezing from chemical and physical irritants is not due to the release of histamine, so most antihistamines would not be expected to help in these cases either.

Instead, various nasal sprays, including nasal steroids, some nasal antihistamines, and anticholinergic nasal sprays may be helpful for treating sneezing caused by chemical and physical irritants.

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  2. Cleveland Clinic. Common cold. Updated April 30, 2020.

  3. Allan GM, Arroll B. Prevention and treatment of the common cold: making sense of the evidence. CMAJ. 2014;186(3):190-9. doi:10.1503/cmaj.121442

  4. Cleveland Clinic. Nonallergic rhinitis. Updated July 26, 2019.