Why Does the Sun Make Some People Sneeze?
A little girl's drawing on Reddit sheds light on why some people react to sunlight with and "ACHOO!"
Image courtesy Jonathon Michaels
The sun nourishes the planet, and makes it inhabitable. It feeds plants, keeps air and water warm, provides energy that helps power homes and transportation, helps humans synthesize vitamin D, and keeps this blue marble orbiting through space. But for a percentage of the population, the fiery orb of hydrogen is also a terror. On Wednesday, a good deal of sun haters found company, brought together by a beautiful work of art drawn by a 7-year-old girl posted to Reddit.
That's where Jonathon Michaels, proud papa to his daughter Alyssa, posted the work, captioned "My daughter hates the sun and she drew me a picture of her yelling at the sun."
The 2,000-plus comments beneath the photo, which has been upvoted 127k times, are a predictable mix of cheerful agreement from a chorus of the fair skinned and those with sensitivity to light, among other sun related gripes. But a good deal of commenters on the post point to another reason they hate the sun: it makes them sneeze.
For them, sudden exposure to sunlight triggers a condition called photic sneeze reflex, also called “sun sneezing," or the unbelievably on-the-nose backronym Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioopthalmic Outburst (ACHOO)—unavoidable, sometimes painful, nasal outbursts. Some in the robust Reddit thread claim it affects up to "a quarter of all people in the world." Could that be?
Dr. David Lang of Cleveland Clinic’s Allergy and Clinical Immunology Department tells VICE the number is somewhere between a third and a sixth of the US population, and symptoms range from being a minor annoyance to painful and dangerous under certain circumstances. A commenter described his own troubled relationship with Sol thanks to the reflex, and others came out of the woodwork to commiserate, casting new—er—light on the little-discussed phenomenon.
Sun sneezing is a fluke of nature with no known selective advantage. It's been observed for hundreds of years, including a mention in Aristotle's Book of Problems, published at least 1,500 years ago. Lang says it can be the result of crossed wires in the fifth cranial nerve, the one that lets people feel and control their faces. When the pupils constrict quickly, as with sudden exposure to sun or any other bright light, the sneeze reflex is activated at the same time. It’s harmless for most people, but in the worst cases can be debilitating. “Some patients may have a paroxysm of sneezing such as they sneeze more than ten times, sometimes 20 times in a row. It can be very annoying,” said Dr. Lang.
There are circumstances where it can be dangerous, such as when operating heavy machinery. Photic sneeze reflex has caused car accidents, and is a risk factor taken into account when selecting combat pilots. There’s no cure, but Lang has found symptoms can be reduced in solar sneezers whom he also treated for hay fever.
Research suggests it’s passed on genetically, something some commenters in the Reddit thread mention—"Basically when the sun hits me, I sneeze. Every damn time. My 4 year old and 8 month old got it from their Dad, me," writes user NameIdeas. Michaels says his daughter drew the picture to express her general dislike for the sun—“She said that she hates the sun because it’s annoying, even if it’s helping people"—but it turns out both he and she have photic sneeze reflex. He says he first realized he had it as a child in the 80s, and found long car rides in his dad’s beige Oldsmobile station wagon were more tolerable while shading his eyes with his ViewMaster. Sitting in the rear-facing bench of the hatchback’s back seat, he blocked out the sneeze-inducing rays with slides from Disney’s The Black Hole. Ever since, he’s worn sunglasses more than usual. “Explains my affection for places like London and Seattle,” he says.
It was in a car that he also realized his daughter was a sun sneezer. She was seated next to him, too low for the sun visor to do its job, and “She did that whole fight-the-sneeze face and then just start blowing snot all over the windscreen and dash—like a hiccup fit, but with sneezing,” Michaels recalls. “I took my hat off and put it over her head. She now has several pairs of glasses she brings with her to avoid hacking.”
That was when Alyssa was three years old. Four years on, the prodigy is channeling her trials and tribulations into anti-sun artwork that's brought a group of sun sneezers who agree with her sentiment about it. "The birds can have the sun," she said, according to Michaels.
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