Ever since I was a little kid I’ve been aware that looking at a bright light makes me sneeze. I never thought much about it, don’t — for instance — even recall talking about it with anyone else. But I recently read an article in New Scientist which has at least given me the name for my condition.

I’m a photic sneezer.

This ill-studied syndrome apparently affects only a minor fraction of the human race. It’s so ill-studied, in fact, that even those scientists who are now beginning to turn their attention to it can’t say whether that proportion is 10 percent, 40 percent or something between. Henry Everett, a psychiatry consultant for Johns Hopkins University Hospital, puts it for groups he has studied at 18 to 24 percent, but the sample sizes are too small to be reliable. It does seem from his work, though, that there is a genetic component to the condition, since it seemed more common in family members.

Photic sneezing may be related to one in which patients sneeze when they have an orgasm, or sometimes are merely having erotic thoughts. Both may have to do with minor malfunctions of the trigeminal nerve, the one which reports sensation from the face. According to New Scientist, “Somewhere along the nerve the impulses from different nerve endings around the eye and the nose may become scrambled.”

In any case the condition doesn’t seem to be dangerous, though for a time the U.S. Air Force worried about whether it might blunt the reflexes of fighter pilots. For the rest of us, sneeze in good health!


  1. kaellinn18 says:

    I’ve also known that I’ve had this condition since I was a child, though I haven’t thought about it in many years. I guess I was under the impression that this was normal and everyone did it. It was only a sneeze, after all, so I never gave it a second thought. Very interesting article!

  2. Jeff says:

    That is strange.

    I have noticed that when I have a sudden urge to sneeze, pressing on the end of my nose usually makes that urge go away. I always thought it made the cillia spread apart, thus reducing the irritation, but perhaps I am merely pressing on some malfunctioning nerve?

    Maybe this is also the origin on the idiom “nothing to sneeze at”?

  3. Scott Raun says:

    You, me, Steve Brust, and Vlad Taltos. I think I first looked for a name for it about 20 years ago.

  4. Erik Harrison says:

    I remember asking my dad about this as a kid. He had no answer.

    When I got a little older, a science teacher and I tried to puzzle something out. The theory we came up with was that the sudden brightening of light caused the eyes to water (at least it does mine) and that there was some relationship between the tearing up and irritation of the sinus cavity.

    Glad to know someone is exploring this.

  5. John H says:

    My boss and his children are all photic sneezers, but his wife isn’t. When they leave a movie theater they all sneeze uncontrollably for about ten seconds. Such a strange condition to have…

  6. Marc says:

    Out of ancestral and medical curiosity I had my DNA profiled by 23andme last year. Interestingly they run a series of post analysis surveys and tests which you can complete online. One of the more lightheaded surveys is called “10 things about me” of which photic tendency (something I’d never heard of before) is one. According to 23andme’s stats, the likelihood of a photic response is running at 30%-32%. My favourite question of the 10 was “asparagus odour when you pee” (something I was aware of) which apparently 54% of the population experience.

    On a more serious note, 23andme are currently investigating the possible genetic link of photic sneeze response. Aka: autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst syndrome (ACHOO syndrome). However there’s no indication yet as to when that research is due to complete.

  7. Omphalos says:

    Whenever I get the urge to sneeze but cannot, I look at a bright light and the sneeze usually comes. Ive been like that for as long as I can remember. For a while there I was telling friends about it whenever they had sneezes that wouldn’t come. It worked for very few of them.

  8. DB says:

    I was hoping this would be “phonetic” sneezing, the tendency of some people to say words while sneezing. My father sneezes the word “horses–t”. He claims not to be doing this deliberately.

  9. jimf says:

    I sneeze when I walk out of a building into the sun and have done so for years. Bright lights which are not the sun do not have that effect.

  10. Anton Sherwood says:

    Marc: You mean your pee normally smells of asparagus, or asparagus changes its smell?

    Under pressure from mother, I recently ate a small amount of asparagus, for the first time in many years; and, remembering that asparagus pee odor is mentioned in Gateway (or possibly BtBEH, I made a mental note to pay attention … Maybe I didn’t eat enough.

  11. Aaron says:

    I have sneezed due to bright light ever since I can remember, but I never knew that this occurrence was rare. Then again, I can’t recall ever speaking about it to anyone. I feel strangely special now.