Does the sun make you sneeze?

This is a video I took of our little one, sitting in a chair watching telly. As I walk over to him the sunlight streaming in through window catches him full in the face, and a couple of seconds later he sneezes.

This happens to him fairly often, usually as we leave the house into the bright sunlight. I noticed this behaviour straightaway, as the exact same thing happens to me when I move from dark to bright light.

It turns out that this doesn’t happen to everyone, as I found out when I said casually to friends, “you know how the sun makes you sneeze, well…”, and was met with stony silence.

Then I found out I had a proper disorder. Gosh!

It’s called a photic sneeze reflex, or as some witty scientists labelled itAutosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst - ACHOO syndrome for short. It is estimated that 17-35% of the population have it, and it’s far more common in white people than in other ethnicities.

But no one knows why it happens. Despite it apparently being noticed by Aristotle and investigated by philosopher Francis Bacon, little research has been carried out. My search in the biomedical database PubMed turned up only 16 research papers since 1984.

The best guess at the moment is that it’s because the nerve cells that carry information from the eye and those that carry information from the nose run so close together. As the nerves from the eye are stimulated by bright light, usually to constrict the pupil, electrical signals ‘spillover’ and activate the nerves coming from the nose. This causes the brain to confuse a bright light with a nose irritation, and… ACHOO! In fact, the area of the brain responsible for processing visual information is overstimulated in photic sneezers compared with non-sneezers, which may underlie the spillover effect.

We do know that it appears to run in families – as it has seemingly done in our case – but the genes at the root of it are not known. Initial studies claimed that a child has a 50% chance of inheriting the ‘disorder’ from a photic sneezing parent, but there may be more than one ACHOO gene.

It’s a fairly harmless reaction, though the US air force were sufficiently concerned to fund research into whether this reflex could endanger jet pilots. It could, but was easily overcome with sunglasses.

You may be tempted to speculate as to whether it evolved for a purpose. In all likelihood it didn’t, it is a quirk thrown up by evolution but one that’s not disadvantageous enough to be selected against.

It is irritating, but at least it doesn’t happen during sex.

8 thoughts on “Does the sun make you sneeze?

  1. Martin Haegenheim

    I just voted in your poll. There are now five people who say they have photic sneezing as against three who claim not to, pretty indicative of how self observation skews statistics. Those who do have it are far more likely to read the article and then to vote than those who do not.

    One feature that doesn’t seem to have been reported is that many children who show photic sneezing when young actually grow out of it. My brother and I both had it as kids, he (almost) grew out of it, whereas it has remains pretty constant with me – possibly even got a bit worse.

    The number of sneezes seems to be inheritable too : in our family it’s two, and two-times-two when the light comes strongly and suddenly, whereas yours seems to be just one. Interesting for those of us with the trait.

    Reply
  2. infinitelyremote

    Very interesting – I thought this was simply part of the human condition – I always suspected it was caused by dialation of blood vessels in the nose from the heat of the sun…
    I spent a good many years in a photo-lab and thankfully I did not sneeze as a result of turning on the lights in the darkroom. But I almost always sneeze when in the situation illustrated here by your son (and our Sun.)

    Reply
  3. jcaulfieldgdbd

    Matt – this is interesting stuff. I sit next to Jen at work who has recently become pregnant, Jen thought your article was interesting too although neither she nor I have the syndrome. Jen did say that since pregancy she sneezes a lot more, for no reason and more vigorously – have you ever come across this in your ponderings on parenthood?
    Jim

    Reply
    1. The Skeptical Dad Post author

      Hi Jim, thanks for commenting. That’s a really interesting one – I’ve not heard of that before. There are the well-known hormonal changes that happen during pregnancy, which can affect taste/smell preference and sensitivity amongst other things, but I can’t think how it would affect sneezing (maybe it affects light sensitivity?). I’ll look into it and let you know!

      Matt

      Reply
  4. Deanna Smith

    I can say for sure that this condition runs in families. I sneeze every time I go out in fairly bright to very bright sunlight or even when I look out the window under the same conditions. The sneezes are always numerous, often 7 or more. My Grandfather on my father’s side had the condition and my father does as well. I have 3 brothers who do not have it. My friends poke fun whenever it happens and are quite used to it. It is something I am so used to, I keep sunglasses in my purse, back ups in my car and a few spares in the house. It has just always been normal, a bit annoying, but normal for me and has occurred all my life. Bright lights do not have the same effect, it occurs with natural sunlight only with me.

    Reply
  5. Yarelis

    Very interesting! As a kid I used to tell people I was allergic to the Sun. I never knew what it was. My sister would get so mad and tell me I was making it up. Now as adults we laugh every time I sneeze when we’re outside. I never looked it up until now. My son also has it. At least now I can explain it to him so that he doesn’t get told he’s telling lies if he says he’s allergic to the sun to his older brothers! Lol! Thanks! :)

    Reply
  6. Teri Larcade

    I looked it up because my husband had it, and then recently I saw a few seconds of a TV commercial for cheap, amazing DNA tests (don’t fall for that lying ad!) where a guy says, “Oh, so THAT’S why the sun makes me sneeze!” The commercial reminded me and got me curious. My husband would sneeze 2 or 3 times when the sun hit him in the face, even though he was a dairy farmer’s son and relentless outdoorsman who lived his life showered in sunshine. It was hilarious, the sun making him sneeze, because he was such a man for having “no weaknesses,” especially weaknesses that “made no sense.” None of our 5 children (1 girl, 4 boys) have it, unless I missed noticing it. With 5 kids, it would be possible to overlook. Don’t know about the 7 (soon to be 8) grandkids, but no reports of sun-sneezers so far. :D Thanks for this article! It’s the only one I read, because it was by far the most appealing.

    Reply
  7. Lisa Harris

    My dad & I both have this disorder. We figured out very early in my life that ANYTIME I am outdoors I must be wearing good dark sunglasses. UVA & UVB and polarized. If it is daylight I’m wearing sunglasses, even on cloudy days. That stops the sneezes & I’ve been told by the eye doctor that I’m getting a bonus by wearing my shades all the time…very very low risk of getting cataracts!! Woohoo!!

    Reply

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