Obscure Medical Terms: How Well Do You 'Speak Medicine'?

Albert B. Lowenfels, MD


November 09, 2018

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Sternutation, or what we commonly call "sneezing," is the sudden, forceful, involuntary expulsion of air from the nose and mouth caused by irritation to the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract. The word originates from sternuere, the Latin term for sneezing.

Sneezing is usually triggered by a viral upper respiratory infection, environmental allergies, or inhalation of an irritant. Strong light, such as sunlight, can induce sneezing in up to 25% of individuals.[4] Autosomal dominant compelling helioopthalmic outburst (ACHOO) syndrome, termed "photic sneezing," is inherited as an autosomal dominant trait. Uncommon and severe, ACHOO syndrome is characterized by uncontrollable sneezing in response to bright light.[5]

What about the custom of saying "God bless you" when a person sneezes? Pope Gregory I, known as Saint Gregory the Great (540-604), is believed to be the person who encouraged people to say this phrase. During the Middle Ages, the symptoms of bubonic plague, a highly lethal disease prevalent at that time, often included sneezing and coughing.[6]


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