Updated: Jun 1, 2020
It's with considered fondness that I recall the influence of some competitive and highly enthusiastic sneezing from fellow passengers on a train journey during my youth. Relieved though I am to see the junior editors not following my example here, it's amusing to watch them channelling their energy into other examples of extreme vocal fortissimo, such as triumphantly announcing a four-letter swear word during a game of lockdown Boggle with more senior members of the extended family over Zoom.
Sneezing though, is a totally fascinating reflex. To doctors at least. I begin this section with high-end zeal matched only by that implied recently of the government's spin team, during what must have been an 'implausability-off' in reaching potential explanations for breaches of lockdown. But unlike political aides and their daytrip plans, there's nothing intentional about sneezing. It starts with pollen activating special sensors in the nose, eyes and mouth sending messages to the brain, where as luck would have it there's a place dedicated to sneezing: the 'medulla'. Now, a lot of exciting stuff happens here - sit down and strap in folks! It's the ultimate control centre of breathing, swallowing, digestion, circulation - um, shall I continue? Here's where the plan of action is hatched, transmitting instructions via at least 4 major nerves to the muscles between your ribs, and in your windpipe and the back of your mouth. Expert co-ordination causes air to be swiftly inhaled, trapped, and then expelled at 10mph, ridding the body of all those nasty particles. And thence the unmistakable squelch of fresh mucus caught deftly in a crisp white tissue. Or most of your breakfast ending up on the opposite wall/person.
Admittedly a love of anatomy occasionally spills over into my social life (*gazes wistfully at the blank calendar, thank you COVID-19*), so I've lost half my audience already, but the other half are probably allergy sufferers who view this time of year as the onslaught of pollen-related misery. You may as well be little Nick in 'Honey I Shrunk the Kids', dodging boulder-sized bees carrying the dreaded allergen. Whilst it is possible to prevent sneezes by exhaling deeply, holding your breath while counting to ten, tilting your head back, or gently pinching the bridge of the nose for a few seconds, you may be looking to stop that familiar "oh-oh" sensation before it even arises. Prevention is better than cure, right? Have a house point. The good news is you probably don't need a GP appointment to help with your symptoms. For the lucky non-optically challenged, wearing sunglasses outside helps stop that pesky pollen getting to your peepers. Vaseline or lip-balm around your nostrils (at bedtime, unless you don't mind people repeatedly and pityingly offering you tissues - believe me) will catch the pollen attempting to enter there. And simply washing your hair before bedtime reduces the pollen on your pillow. Of course I'm going to mention diet, in particular vitamin C which has antihistamine properties - try citrus fruits, strawberries, and blueberries. And make the daily online pollen counter your new friend.
Clearly many people will have severe symptoms that need a helping hand from medication. And asthmatics may find that pollen triggers their wheezing. If so, now is the time to start taking that preventer you ordered last year but kept at the back of your cutlery drawer. Please! And you could even bag yourself some planet points by asking your friendly GP to switch you to a more carbon friendly 'dry-powder inhaler'. Our fantastic local pharmacists can direct you to hayfever medications (I'm taking about steroid nasal sprays, anti-histamine tablets, and anti-histamine eyedrops - all available cheaply over the counter). In fact it's rare for GPs to prescribe these medicines now as we're having to be extremely careful about where we direct our precious funds during the NHS's financial crisis.
Back to those insufferable sneezes. Sure I'm an advocate of the pocket handkerchief, however, COVID-19 guidance tells us to sneeze into the crook of an elbow (ideally your own) or into a tissue that can be disposed of immediately. Clearly you'll be worried about where to find the most environmentally friendly tissues, from sustainable forests, or in a box without that irritating plastic airlock-esque flap through which the tissues should seamlessly glide, though in reality usually get stuck in a unwieldy wadge. Here, it's with some relief my plastic-fuelled hyperventilation is soothed by the reassurance of several websites pinned lovingly to the taskbar, such as &keep, and Who Gives a Crap (always a favourite when elderly relatives visit and see the logo in large font on every roll). You can now rub your nose raw, safe in the knowledge that fewer trees have been harmed. And hopefully washable hankies will make a comeback in the future.
FYI if, like me, childhood dares involved holding your eyelids open while you sneeze to see if your eyeballs popped out, fear not friends, this is a myth. And finally, just to tug at the old heart strings, did you know that sadly in some cultures acknowledging a sneeze with "bless you" or similar does not exist?! Let’s take comfort then from our friends in the Netherlands, where 3 sneezes in a row leads to the response "morgen mooi weer", meaning "tomorrow will be nice weather”. I’m off to perfect my pronunciation...