Sun sneezing is a phenomenon affecting about a quarter of the population – but why? Mass. Eye and Ear sinus specialist Dr. Benjamin Bleier explains.
When you walk outside on a bright, sunny day, do you sneeze? When you look at a bright light, do you feel a tingle in your nose?
If you answered yes to either of these questions, you might be a “sun sneezer.”
Officially known as photic sneeze reflex, sun sneezing is a condition that triggers a sneeze when people are exposed to bright lights. It affects an estimated 18 to 35 percent of the population. It is more prevalent in females, who represent 67 percent of sun sneezers, and Caucasians, who represent 94 percent.
It’s also thought to be a genetic condition, as it often occurs within families. While the genetic basis for sun sneezing is unclear, it has been suggested that it is inherited as an autosomal-dominant trait, meaning you need only one mutated gene, i.e. one parent, to be affected by this disorder.
“The number of induced sneezes seems to be genetically mediated and can be predicted within a family,” said Benjamin S. Bleier, MD, FACS, a sinus surgeon at Mass. Eye and Ear.
Sun sneezing origins
Sun sneezing has been documented for many centuries. In fact, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was one of the first to explore its occurrence in 350 BCE and hypothesized that the sun warmed the inside of the nose, generating a sneeze.
English philosopher Francis Bacon disproved this theory in the 17th century by noting that facing the sun with closed eyes did not elicit a sneeze response. “Bacon thought that the eyes may actually play an important role in photic sneeze reflex instead,” Dr. Bleier said.
In recent studies, it’s been shown that the reflex seems to be caused by a change in light intensity rather than by a specific type of light. This is why bright lights, camera flashes and even the brightness from snow can sometimes cause a sneezing sensation.
Still, the exact mechanism of the photic sneeze reflex is not clear. The most common explanation can be traced to Dr. Henry Everett who, in 1964, proposed that the effect resulted from a confusion of nerve signals in the brain.
“When your eyes are exposed to bright light, the parasympathetic nervous system, or the rest and digest response, causes the pupils to constrict to protect the eyes from light damage,” said Dr. Bleier. “This effect may indirectly activate other parts of your rest and digest response, including those that control mucus secretion and the sneeze response in your nose.”
Should sun sneezers be concerned?
The good news is that sun sneezing is not harmful. It’s usually more of an annoyance than a risk. Some people actually like that it “helps get their sneeze out.”
It’s even been renamed as the more humorous ‘ACHOO’ (autosomal dominant compulsive helio-ophthalmic outbursts of sneezing) syndrome.
However, it may pose a problem to drivers or pilots when transitioning from dim surroundings into full sunlight. Those who have photic sneeze reflex should shield their eyes and/or faces with hats, scarves or sunglasses, and avoid looking directly at light when they can help it.
“There may still be more to understand about sun sneezing, but it is definitely an interesting occurrence,” said Dr. Bleier. “Those who sneeze in light should ask their family members if they do this as well – you might be surprised by what you learn!”
About our expert
Dr. Benjamin Bleier specializes in complex sinus and endoscopic skull base surgery. He sees patients at the main campus of Mass. Eye and Ear.
I remember when I was jeunior highschool student. Sometimes I felt to try to sneeze but could not. That time my friend suggested me to look at the sun or light, it mekes me seeze easily. Now I recognized it was true. Also remember the movie “My step mother is an Alian” Sterling movie star Kim Basinger ( She is an beautiful Alian) recognized the sneeze was confortable, then she decided to stay on earth.
Thanks for reading, Koichi! Sounds like you are a sun sneezer. 🙂
I once heard that it was a trait that prompted newborn babies to sneeze once they were exposed to light in order to clear their passages. Sounded plausible at the time (of course, it wouldn’t help those babies who are born in the dark.)
This was such an interesting topic! My son has OCA1 albinism (albino) and every time he goes outside on a sunny or overcast day, he will sneeze. We make a joke of it now that he is older. Once he gets that first sneeze out, he is fine.
i am sun sneezer from my really early childhood. now im 30 and its still same, at some point i dont need sun to sneeze. if someone will text on my phone at the middle of the night, and ill check it even with minimum brightness, yes, ill sneeze. any change from dark to light targeting sneezing xD
Well, Personally when I want to sneeze but I still need a little bit of tingling to sneeze I looked up to the sun and it complete.
I’m a sun sneezer and my father was as well. I usually sneeze in a set of 2, rarely 3 and then I’m done sun sneezing for the day unless something isn’t right with my body and I might sneeze many more sets of 2 in the day.
Over the years, I’ve experimented with the type of light, where sometimes bright sunlight will not illicit the response but if I squint to change the wavelengths entering my eye, it activates. I have on a few occasions seen my phone activate it, but rarely. I believe there is a response to either ultraviolet or infrared light or something else in the invisible spectrum. It would be interesting to have a study on these wavelengths and it might be the root cause when combined with the genetic component.
Thanks for reading and sharing your experience, Samir. I agree some more research on this topic would be fascinating to see!
I sneeze about 3-4 times when I go and look to the sun.(Can’t do more than that but enough) I very much like it! It boosts my energy about 20-30% very very very much and everytime I’m tired I’m just trying to sneeze with the help of the sun! Sometimes sneeze comes from looking to room lights also but the sun gives more energy not even comparable. My friends go crazy when they see me doing that but I can’t explain them how much pleasure it is to sneeze like this after non-stop working hours on PC.
Chip r, I definitely believe it has something to do with clearing sinuses . When I’m sleeping with a clogged nose , and I turn in the direction of my window , my nose will slowly start to clear . My sinuses also clear and feel amazing every time I sun sneeze as well
I was previously informed that my ‘sun sneezing’ was a result of a short circuit between the optic and the trigeminal nerve, the rapid constriction of the iris resulting in the trigeminal nerve triggering the sneeze reflex. I was also told that it’s hereditary and that a dna examination can diagnose it down to the exact number of sneezes to expect when transitioning into sunlight or other bright conditions.
I love this “syndrome.” I consider it a gift as my best friend suffers with a tickle in her nose for an hour, and I can just look at a lamp and get the sneeze out. I only randomly sneeze when I look directly at the sun, and sometimes not even then. I have blue eyes, so they are sensitive to light. I often get headaches from harsh sunlight, so sunglasses are a must for me. I just really like learning weird traits and mutations about myself (like my central heterochromia blue/yellow and double eyelashes).
Does eye color have anything to do with it?
I discovered that I sneeze when looking directly into the bright Sun. I was being defiant to someone saying you should never look directly into the Sun when I discovered it. The first time, I didn’t think anything of it. But, the 2nd time it happened, I knew it wasn’t a coincidence. So now I do it for fun every time I leave my house for work every day. I love the feeling of looking directly into the Sun.