The idea that your heart stops when you sneeze sounds more than a little hard to believe — but then again, the human body does some weird (and wonderful) things.
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So what’s the truth about sneezes? We talked to cardiologist Kenneth Mayuga, MD, to get the scoop on what happens to your heart when you say achoo. (Gesundheit.)
Does your heart skip a beat when you sneeze?
The first thing to know is that there’s an important difference between your heart stopping and your heart pausing.
“The heart doesn’t beat at a fixed rate. It speeds up and slows down all the time, depending on many factors,” points out Dr. Mayuga. For example, it ramps up when you’re running and slows when you’re sleeping.
“When we talk about the ‘heart stopping’ in medical terms, we generally mean a pause that lasts at least 3 seconds,” he says.
Such a long pause can be a sign of a heart rhythm problem. But the good news: “Sneezing, as a normal body function, does not generally cause those long pauses.”
What happens to your heart when you sneeze?
Now that we’ve established sneezes don’t cause your heart to stop, what is it that actually happens? While they usually aren’t anything to worry about, sneezes do have the power to slow down your heart rate, at least for a short time.
Dr. Mayuga says, “While sneezing may have the potential to slow the heartbeat for a very short amount of time — for example, from an increase in what’s called the vagal tone — overall we do not see it causing clinically meaningful pauses.”
“We know this because we have heart monitors that can record your heart rate and rhythm for up to four years,” he continues. “These monitors are designed to detect clinically meaningful heart pauses, which is something we generally don’t see with sneezing.”
The result: The heart’s rhythm is momentarily thrown off-kilter. But your heart doesn’t really stop.
There is a caveat, though. Some people experience a phenomenon called “sneeze syncope.” Syncope (pronounced SIN-ko-pea) means fainting or passing out. When this occurs, the sneezer’s heart rate and blood pressure drop so low that they can feel dizzy or even pass out.
But, Dr. Mayuga assures, “Such a phenomenon is very, very rare even among people who have syncope in general.”.”
One study described an older woman who fainted when she sneezed. It turned out she was using beta-blocker eye drops for glaucoma — a medication that is also prescribed to lower heart rate. When she stopped the medication, her sneeze syncope disappeared.
The moral of the sneeze story? If you faint or feel dizzy when you sneeze, talk to your doctor. If you just sneeze a lot? You might want to talk to an allergist.
But don’t worry: Your heart can handle it.