Why Do We Exclaim, “Bless You!” When Someone Sneezes? and, What is a Sneeze?

From Issue: Discovery 9/1/2003

Dear Lyn,

Like several of the things our bodies do automatically, sneezing is a defense mechanism. The air that we inhale contains particles of dust, pollen, and mold, which can be harmful to our bodies. A sneeze is the body’s way of getting rid of these “floating menaces.” When we breathe in a large amount of dust, pollen, or mold, the linings in our nose and throat are tickled by the intruding particles. This causes the body to force the air and particles back out very quickly—and we call that a sneeze.

The custom of blessing someone after they sneeze goes back to at least A.D. 77. It apparently was a Roman or Greek custom, but the true reason for it has been lost. Some say that it was to protect the person’s soul, which they believed left the body temporarily while sneezing. Others say that it was to keep evil spirits from entering the body. Still others say that blessing a person when they sneeze gives them good luck. None of these is biblically correct, but it shows what some people used to think when they blessed a sneezing friend. Today, saying, “Bless you!” when someone sneezes usually means, “I sure hope you’re not getting sick!”


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