Dear Dr. Roach: Frequently, after eating and most often after dinner, I begin to sneeze. The sneezing goes on up to 10 times. It doesn't seem to matter what I eat or where I am. My husband calls the episodes "sneezures," and we found that if he tickles me, I start to laugh and the "sneezures" cease. I've tried to research this phenomenon with no luck. Would you be able to shed some light and possibly help me?
A: Sneezes can have several causes. The most common is due to irritation to the nose, such as by allergens, nonspecific irritants like cold air or dust, or infection.
However, there are unusual triggers, too. These include sunlight (photic sneezes), sexual activity and plucking eyebrows. Gustatory rhinitis (from Latin for "tasting" and Greek for "nose inflammation") causes the nose to run, and this often leads to sneezing. For many people, hot foods (both temperature and spicy) are more prone to cause this problem.
Many of these less common causes for sneezing stem from the parasympathetic nervous system. You may recall that the sympathetic nervous system is called the "fight or flight" response — an overall state of your autonomic nervous system. The parasympathetic is called the "rest and digest" system. Sneezing is largely under parasympathetic control, whereas tickling would tend to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system; that is my only plausible explanation why your husband's approach might work.
If you notice that you have nasal discharge when you eat, then I think gustatory rhinitis is the explanation, and if you don't want the tickle cure, you might ask your doctor about ipratropium nasal spray. I have found it to be effective.
Please pass on to your husband that I think "sneezures" is brilliant, and it ought to be a legitimate new word.
Dr. Keith Roach writes for North America Syndicate. Send letters to 628 Virginia Dr., Orlando, FL 32803 or email ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu.