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What Causes…Hiccups, Sneezes & More

Do you ever wonder why you sneeze? Or hiccup? Or cry?  The human body takes it upon itself to do a variety of things to help keep us healthy. Let’s take a look at some of those things our bodies do and why.

What Causes Sneezing?

Think of your nose as an air filter for your body.  As you breathe in air, your nose filters out pollutants, such as dirt, dust, smoke and pollen so they don’t end up in your lungs. These irritants typically get absorbed into the mucus our bodies produce and swallowed. The mucus enters the stomach and is ultimately ejected from the body through the digestive process without causing any harm.  The nose is a very effective air filtration system. 

Sometimes the pollutants the nose intercepts will irritate the mucus membranes in our nostrils and throat.  These membranes can be very sensitive.  If they become irritated, the nervous system signals the brain and the brain orders up a sneeze in a matter of a few seconds. 

The action of sneezing forces air, water and mucus through your nose with great force.  Sneezing has a positive effect on your respiratory system, helping to reset your nose by clearing out irritants.  Sneezing is usually harmless and not indicative of illness or a medical condition. Of course, sneezing can also be a symptom of an upper respiratory infection or allergies

The downside of sneezing is that as air and mucus are ejected from your nose forcefully, they can also carry with them bacteria and viruses.  Since a sneeze can easily project water vapor several feet, this is an easy way for the common coldthe flu and COVID-19 to spread.  This is why it’s important to cover your nose when you sneeze and try not to sneeze in the direction of others. 

What Causes Tears?

Tears are important to our health.  There are three types of tears.  Basal tears are always present – their job is to lubricate our eyes.  Containing oil, water, salt and mucus, basal tears help to keep irritants from bothering our eyes.  We distribute basal tears evenly across our eyes when we blink. 

At times we produce irritant tears – these spring into action when triggered by something in our environment, like something blowing into your eyes or peeling an onion.  These tears are a defense mechanism that wash irritants out of our eyes.

Finally, there are emotional tears – the tears that we experience when crying.  We can experience these tears when we have strong emotional feelings like sadness, empathy, joy or anger. 

What Causes Hiccups?

When we hiccup, our diaphragm, a muscle situated between the stomach and the chest, tightens and begins to have contractions.  The contraction forces the vocal cords to close, which produces the “hiccup” sound. 

Hiccups are usually a reaction to something we ate or drank.  Common triggers include:

  • Carbonated drinks
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Too much food at one time
  • Spicy foods
  • Swallowing air, which can happen when chewing gum

Typically, hiccups triggered by these types of events last only a few minutes.  In rare cases, an underlying health condition can result in chronic hiccups.  Hiccups that last longer than 48 hours are a reason to see your doctor and find out what’s going on. 

What Causes Burping?

Burping, or belching, is the body’s way of ejecting excess air that has gathered in the upper digestive tract, usually the esophagus.  This is a normal bodily function that can be the result of eating or drinking too quickly, smoking, drinking carbonated beverages and chewing gum.  All of these things lead to swallowing excess air.  Usually, the only downside is that burping unexpectedly can be a little embarrassing. 

In some cases, excessive or chronic belching can be an indicator of a condition that requires treatment, such as acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).  If you suffer from frequent belching, see your doctor about it and discuss your symptoms. 

What Causes Flatulence?

Burping’s even more embarrassing cousin is flatulence.  Flatulence, or passing gas, occurs when gas forms and accumulates in the lower digestive tract, specifically the small intestine and colon. 

There are numerous causes of occasional gas. Some of the most common are food remnants in the colon and constipation. 

Like belching, flatulence is normal and usually not a cause for concern, but if it is occurring frequently or excessively, it may be a sign of a more serious underlying GI condition.  See your provider if you are experiencing frequent flatulence. 

What Causes Itching?

Itching is an irritation on your skin that makes you want to scratch it.  According to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, scratching an itch is a reflexive animal instinct that humans have retained through the evolutionary process. Animals scratch to remove potential parasites from their bodies. 

Itching can be caused by something temporary, like an insect bite, or an underlying chronic skin condition, like psoriasis.  Itching is often caused by dry skin, especially in older adults. 

Allergies can be a key trigger for itching, causing hives in some people.  In these cases, itching is triggered by histamine, a chemical that is released when our body has an immune response to something.  Allergy-induced itching is often provoked by a certain food, medicine or latex products.

There are several other conditions that can cause itching: from chickenpox and shingles to underlying blood, kidney and liver disorders.  If you experience chronic itching, see your primary care provider to try and diagnose the cause of your itching. 

Why Do I Feel Like I am Falling When Going to Sleep?

Do you ever feel like you are falling or twitching when you are in bed, falling asleep?  If so, don’t worry – it’s very normal.  This condition has a name – sleep myoclonus, or hypnic myoclonus.  This tends to happen as you are first falling asleep and transitioning from a phase of light sleep to one of deeper sleep. 

While this sensation is normal, there are triggers that can make it occur more frequently, including stress, alcohol, caffeine and not getting enough sleep.  If you have trouble getting a good night’s sleep, see your primary care provider or a sleep specialist. 

This article contains information sourced from:

The Mayo Clinic


The Cleavland Clinic

American Academy of Asthma & Immunology

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