Common Sneezing Causes and Triggers

Sneezing is one of the most recognizable allergy symptoms, but that's not its only cause. When you find yourself in a fit of sneezing, you may want to find a solution fast. The sneeze mechanism is triggered in a few different ways, and so there are different treatments to inhibit it. See the most common causes and ways to end your sneezing.

Common Causes of Sneezing
Verywell / Jessica Olah

Allergic Rhinitis and Sneezing

When you are allergic to something, you may sneeze. Hay fever or allergy to pollen, mold, dander, or dust can have you running for the tissues. In allergic rhinitis, the allergic cells in your nasal mucous membranes release histamine. Histamine 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. While they won't be helpful for most non-allergic causes, in the case of allergies 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 the air, and washing your linens in hot water to kill dust mites.

Allegra (fexofenadine) has emerged as a leading "non-drowsy" antihistamine for people with allergic rhinitis. Bilaxten (bilastine) is a longer-lasting and even less sedating antihistamine option but is not yet approved for use in the United States.


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. Sneezing is an example of a symptom that makes it difficult to tell the difference between symptoms of cold compared to allergies.

In the case of a cold, histamine is not causing the sneezing, so most antihistamines would not be expected to help the symptom. However, medications that can dry nasal secretions, including some antihistamines such as Benadryl, as well as anticholinergic nasal sprays such as Nasal Atrovent, can help with 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 since there are no allergic antibodies causing the symptoms.

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

For treating this problem, chemical and physical irritants do not cause sneezing through the release of histamine, so traditional antihistamines would not be expected to treat symptoms caused by these irritants.

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.

Intranasal corticosteroids are first-line therapy for chronic non-allergic rhinitis. Fluticasone propionate (sold under the brand names Flovent and Flonase) and Qvar (beclomethasone) are the only topical corticosteroids approved for non-allergic rhinitis.

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