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uncontrollable sneezing fits
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  • Uncontrollable Sneezing Fits: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

Uncontrollable Sneezing Fits: Causes, Treatment, and Prevention

By Mallory Logsdon, PA-C Published on Jul 05, 2024
Table of Contents
    Key Takeaways
    • Sneezing is a reflexive response that helps protect the respiratory system.
    • Frequent sneezing can be caused by allergens, smoke, or other factors.
    • Management tips include identifying triggers, reducing exposure, and taking medications.

    Imagine you're going about your day when suddenly you feel a tickling sensation in your nose. Before you know it, you're hit with a powerful urge to sneeze. The first sneeze comes, and then another, and another.

    While they’re a common reflex action, uncontrollable sneezing fits can be an uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing experience, especially when you’re in social situations or trying to focus at work.

    In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind your sneezing fits and learn effective ways to manage and reduce them.

    Why Can’t I Stop Sneezing?

    Sneezing is the body's way of clearing the nasal passages of irritants or infectious particles, so persistent sneezing usually indicates ongoing exposure to something that triggers this reflex.

    Examples of triggers include pollen, dust, pet dander, and other irritants in the air like strong odors or smoke. The common cold and flu can also make you sneeze more frequently.

    Why Do Allergies Cause Uncontrollable Sneezing Fits?

    The nasal inflammation and irritation from allergens like pollen, dust, or pet dander directly stimulate the nerves that control the sneeze reflex. This leads to the involuntary, repeated sneezing that characterizes an allergy-induced sneezing fit.

    Histamine is one of the key inflammatory mediators released during this process [*].

    As for individual sensitivity, some people are simply more sensitive to certain allergens which makes them prone to frequent, uncontrollable sneezing during exposure.

    The concentration of allergens in the environment also directly impacts the severity of symptoms. Allergy symptoms such as frequent sneezing often worsen during peak seasons when allergen levels are highest. For example, ragweed allergies tend to be most severe in late summer/early fall when ragweed pollen counts peak [*].

    Other Causes of Uncontrollable Sneezing Fits

    Besides allergies, uncontrollable sneezing fits can be caused by several other factors. These include the following:

    • Irritants. Strong odors, chemicals, air pollutants, and environmental irritants like smoke or fumes can directly stimulate the nasal lining, leading to sneezing fits as a reflexive response [*].
    • Viral infections. When a cold virus, such as a rhinovirus, infects the lining of the nasal passages, it triggers an immune response and inflammation causing sneezing.
    • Dry air. Sudden exposure to dry indoor air or drastic temperature changes can irritate the nasal mucosa, causing sneezing to clear the nasal passages.
    • Nasal polyps. Note that in the early stages, nasal polyps are often small and may not cause any symptoms. However, they can begin to obstruct the nasal passages as they grow larger, causing noticeable symptoms like stuffiness and sneezing.
    • Certain foods. Some people experience sneezing fits when consuming spicy foods due to the stimulation of nerves in the nasal passages triggered by capsaicin, the active component in chili peppers.

    How to Stop Uncontrollable Sneezing Fits

    Sneezing fits can often be stopped or managed through various methods, depending on the underlying cause. Here are some strategies that may help:

    Identify triggers

    Identifying triggers is key to managing and potentially stopping uncontrollable sneezing fits because it allows you to take proactive steps to avoid or minimize exposure to substances that provoke your allergic response.

    Besides avoiding common triggers like pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold spores, as well as irritants such as strong chemical odors or smoke—it would help to keep a symptom diary where you note the times, locations, and activities when sneezing fits occur. This will help you see patterns that correlate specific environments or activities with sneezing episodes.

    Minimize exposure to triggers

    Minimizing exposure to triggers is effective in stopping uncontrollable sneezing fits, especially for individuals prone to allergies.

    Depending on the allergen you’re trying to avoid, you might want to do the following:

    • Vacuum regularly
    • Use allergen-proof covers
    • Keep pets out of bedrooms
    • Use exhaust fans in bathrooms and kitchens to reduce humidity
    • Avoid smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
    • Clean bathrooms, kitchens, and other mold-prone areas regularly

    Reducing contact with allergens such as pollen, dust mites, pet dander, and mold spores can help lessen the stimuli that provoke the immune response leading to sneezing.

    Antihistamines

    Histamine is a key mediator in allergic reactions, causing inflammation, swelling, and irritation in the nasal passages that lead to sneezing and other allergy symptoms. Taking antihistamines helps stop uncontrollable sneezing fits by blocking the action of histamine.

    Choosing an antihistamine often comes down to personal preference, but the most popular include:

    • Non-Drowsy Antihistamines: fexofenadine, loratadine
    • Fast-Acting Antihistamines: diphenhydramine
    • Long-Lasting Antihistamines: cetirizine, levocetirizine, fexofenadine, loratadine

    Related: Decongestants vs. Antihistamines

    Nasal sprays

    Nasal sprays help stop uncontrollable sneezing fits by delivering medication directly to the nasal passages, reducing inflammation and irritation that contribute to sneezing. That being said, it provides targeted relief.

    There are different types of nasal sprays used for this purpose:

    • Nasal Corticosteroids. Sprays such as fluticasone (Flonase), budesonide (Rhinocort), Nasacort (triamcinolone) and mometasone (Nasonex), work by reducing inflammation in the nasal lining. They inhibit the immune response that causes swelling and mucous production, effectively alleviating sneezing fits and other allergy symptoms over time with regular use.
    • Antihistamine Nasal Sprays. Sprays like azelastine (Astelin) and olopatadine (Patanase), directly block histamine receptors in the nasal passages.
    • Decongestant Nasal Sprays. For sneezing fits accompanied by nasal congestion, decongestant sprays like oxymetazoline (Afrin) can provide quick relief by constricting blood vessels in the nasal lining, reducing swelling, and improving airflow. However, high dose decongestant sprays should never be used longer than 3 days and are not a long-term solution for management of allergies.

    It's important to use nasal sprays as directed to avoid side effects. Always use nasal sprays exactly as directed on the label or by your healthcare provider. Follow the proper dosage, frequency, and technique for administering the spray.

    Nasal irrigation

    Nasal irrigation is a simple, inexpensive at-home treatment that can provide natural relief. It works by flushing out irritants from the nasal and sinus cavities that may be triggering frequent sneezing.

    You can make a saline solution at home, but there's a risk of improper mixing or contamination if not done carefully. Premixed saline packets purchased over the counter are designed to be sterile and have the correct concentration of salt-to-water ratio. This ensures safety for nasal irrigation.

    Related: Why It’s Important to Use a Nasal Saline Spray

    Keep indoor air clean and humid

    Keeping indoor air clean and humid helps stop uncontrollable sneezing fits by reducing the presence of allergens and maintaining optimal nasal health. Using air purifiers with HEPA filters helps remove allergens from the air, significantly reducing their concentration indoors.

    Additionally, maintaining indoor humidity levels between 30-50% helps keep nasal passages moist and healthy [*]. Dry air can irritate the nasal lining, making it more susceptible to allergens and triggering sneezing fits. On the other hand, environments with over 50% humidity are correlated with increased dust mite populations and mold growth.

    Stay hydrated

    Staying hydrated helps stop uncontrollable sneezing fits by maintaining optimal moisture levels in the nasal passages and supporting overall nasal health. In contrast, dehydration can lead to thicker mucus that may not clear efficiently, allowing allergens to linger and irritate the nasal lining, potentially leading to more frequent sneezing fits.

    When to See a Doctor for Sneezing Fits

    If you experience frequent sneezing fits that interfere with your daily life, seek prompt medical advice. Other situations that warrant medical attention include failure of home remedies to provide adequate relief and additional symptoms like fever, nasal discharge that is thick or discolored, facial pain, or pressure.

    The Bottom Line

    Uncontrollable sneezing fits can sometimes indicate the presence of allergies or other conditions that need medical attention. Strategies like identifying certain triggers will help lessen your exposure to irritants, but if sneezing fits persist or become disruptive—it's advisable to consult a healthcare provider.

    References:

    1. Seasonal Allergies | Causes, Symptoms & Treatment | ACAAI Public Website. (2022, November 7). ACAAI Public Website. https://acaai.org/allergies/allergic-conditions/seasonal-allergies/
    2. Shusterman, D. (2011). The Effects of Air Pollutants and Irritants on the Upper Airway. Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, 8(1), 101–105. https://doi.org/10.1513/pats.201003-027rn
    3. Naclerio, R. M. (1990). The role of histamine in allergic rhinitis. ˆthe ‰Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology/Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology/˜the œJournal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 86(4), 628–632. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0091-6749(05)80227-1
    4. Clinic, C. (2024b, April 30). How You Can Tell If You Need a Humidifier. Cleveland Clinic. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-you-can-tell-if-you-need-a-humidifier
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