It’s easy to assume that you’ll be able to sneeze when you want to. After all, there’s an army of stuff—pollen, germs, and more—just floating around in the air for you to breathe in on the regular. Occasionally, you might find that you actually have trouble sneezing—your nose feels itchy and it seems like you have to sneeze, but you just can’t. Cue you frantically googling “how to make yourself sneeze” while wondering what the heck is up with your nasal passages.
There’s a reason why you can feel so bothered when you can't sneeze: It serves a pretty important function. “Sneezing is a protective response,” explains John V. Bosso, MD, an allergist and immunologist and professor of head and heck medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. It “allows you to clear the nose of irritants, dirt, allergens, viruses, and bacteria,” he adds.
You sneeze when there’s a signal to the nose that some stimulus is potentially harmful or irritating, says Neil Bhattacharyya, MD, a comprehensive ear, nose, and throat specialist at Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. And when you actually sneeze, it can help get whatever is annoying you out.
So, why is it that sometimes you can't sneeze?
FWIW, it’s not common to not be able to sneeze, but experts say there are a few things that can be behind this. It’s possible that something is actually stuck in your nose, like some kind of gunk, a small object, or even fungal spores, and your body is just trying (and failing) to get it out, Dr. Bhattacharyya says.
On the more severe end, Dr. Bosso points out that things like a neurological issue (think: a stroke or brain tumor) or a psychiatric condition could cause you to not be able to sneeze. And, of course, it could also be that you simply feel like you need to sneeze, but your body doesn’t agree.
If your sudden inability to sneeze is a new thing, it’s not causing you any issues, and you can still sneeze sometimes, Dr. Bhattacharyya says there’s no need to take any action. “For most people, a sneeze will happen if it needs to happen,” he says.
But, if you feel like you really need to sneeze and it’s ticking you off that you can’t, there are a few things you can do to take matters into your own hands.
5 Ways To Make Yourself Sneeze
It’s safe “in moderation” to try to make yourself sneeze, per Dr. Bosso, but you don’t want to go overboard with it. Experts break down several hacks you can try to coax your nose into sneezing again.
1. Look at a bright light.
Weird but true: Some people start sneezing when they’re suddenly in bright light. (It’s called photic sneezing, BTW.) This “stimulates a neural reflex,” Dr. Bosso explains. Caveat, though: This only works in about a third of people and is a genetic thing, he says. Meaning, if your parents sneeze when they look at bright light, the odds are higher that you’ll do the same. If not, it might not work.
2. Smell a strong spice.
Spices like pepper, cinnamon, and cayenne can trigger a sneeze. “It irritates the nasal nerve endings,” Dr. Bosso explains. You can get results quickly and most people will have a reaction, he says. Just be careful that you don’t actually inhale the spice because that will burn.
3. Tickle the inside of your nose.
Twist up a tissue and gently insert it into your nose to try to stimulate it from the inside. This tickles the nasal nerve endings, says Dr. Bosso, adding that it works in most people pretty quickly. Just keep this advice from Nadine M. Aktan, PhD, the assistant dean of advanced practice at the Rutgers School of Nursing in mind: “Inserting anything too far up into the nose is not recommended.”
4. Pluck a nose hair.
File this under a last-resort trick to only try once. Plucking a nose hair stimulates your trigeminal nerve (a part of your nervous system that sends pain, touch, and temperature sensations from your face to your brain) and can trigger a sneeze, Dr. Bosso says. Be aware, though, that “it will hurt,” he warns.
5. Pluck a facial hair.
This is a similar hack to the nose hair trick: Plucking a facial hair, like a stray eyebrow, can also stimulate your trigeminal nerve and prompt a sneeze, Aktan says. It should bring on a sneeze pretty quickly. But, like tweezing a nose hair, you really only want to try this once or twice.
If you feel like you need to sneeze and can’t here and there, Dr. Bhattacharyya says it’s really no biggie. But, if you find that this is a regular issue for you, he recommends seeing your doctor to try to dig a little deeper into what could be going on here.