Do people sneeze in their sleep without waking up?

iStock
iStock

My old man was a snorer. His snoring was like the plot of a good action movie, with plenty of rising action. About 15 minutes after he'd fall asleep, it would sound like there was a heard of buffalo racing bulldozers and juggling chainsaws in my parents' bedroom. It would get louder and louder and then cut off when he finally woke himself up. There would be one final snort, and then a "huh?" After that, there was a small window of silence where the whole house could try and get back to sleep before the noise kicked back up.

You'd think it would follow, then, that we would regularly jar ourselves awake with sneezes, too, but that isn't the case. Actually, it seems I pulled a trick question out of the mailbag this week, because we don't sneeze in our sleep at all.

The Roots of the Sneeze

A sneeze is a reflexive response to external stimulants slipping past your nose hairs and reaching the sensitive mucous membranes that line the nasal passage (another common cause is the "photic sneeze reflex," a genetic trait that causes sneezing when a person is suddenly exposed to bright light). Nerve endings in the membranes send signals to the brain about the foreign invaders, and the brain sends signals to muscles in the face, throat and chest to go ahead clean house by expelling air from the nose and mouth.

We're actually more prone to sneezing while asleep, since the mucous membranes swell when we lie down, but because there usually isn't much airflow or movement to stir up dust or other particles while we sleep, the membranes don't come into contact with as many stimulants as they do when we're awake.

Our odds of have having to sneeze during sleep are already reduced, but our bodies have a neat little trick up their sleeves to keep us at rest. It's called REM atonia, a state caused by the shutdown of the release of certain neurotransmitters during REM sleep that results in motor neurons not being stimulated and reflectory signals not being sent to the brain. So, even if there were various stimulants being kicked up while you slept (say, by an evil cat playing with his rubber ball or biting your toes at five in the morning), and a few got into your nose, the brain wouldn't be alerted to the matter.

It is possible, if the external stimulants are sufficient (say, by an evil cat dusting your mustache with pepper), for a person to wake up to sneeze.

This question was asked by Regina from Texas. If you've got a burning question that you'd like to see answered here, shoot me an email at flossymatt (at) gmail.com. Twitter users can also make nice with me and ask me questions there. Be sure to give me your name and location (and a link, if you want) so I can give you a little shout out.

How to Make a DIY Face Mask at Home—No Sewing Required

Sean Gallup, iStock via Getty Images
Sean Gallup, iStock via Getty Images

By the time the CDC told all Americans to start wearing face coverings to slow the spread of coronavirus in early April, protective masks were already hard to find. The medical-grade masks that are available should be reserved for healthcare workers, which leaves everyone else with limited options for following the updated safety guidelines. Luckily, making your own mask at home is fast, ethical, and cheap—and you don't even need to break out the sewing machine to do it.

This video, posted on Julie Eigenmann's Instagram, illustrates how to make a no-sew face mask using supplies you likely already have at home. Start by folding a square scarf or bandana four times lengthwise to create a strip that's big enough to cover the bottom half of your face. Next, pull each end of the cloth through an elastic hair tie or rubber band (one on the right end and one of the left) so that it's roughly divided into thirds. Fold the ends into the center and tuck one end into the opening of the other to hold it all together. Pull the hair ties over your ears to secure the mask to your face.

To boost your mask's filtration power, place a trimmed coffee filter or paper towel on the cloth where your mouth will go before folding it.

After wearing the mask outdoors, you'll need to disinfect it. Take it apart, throw away the disposable filter, and soak the fabric in soapy water for a few minutes. When the cloth is clean and dry, add a new filter and reassemble the mask as shown above to use it again.

DIY cloth masks are better than nothing when it comes to protecting your face from someone coughing or sneezing nearby. But no mask will make you invincible to COVID-19, and you shouldn't use one as an excuse to act any differently outdoors. Use them on necessary trips outside, like to the grocery store or your essential job, and continue keeping a safe distance from others.

Coronavirus News Digest

"See you when the pandemic's over!"
"See you when the pandemic's over!"
Blue Planet Studio/iStock via Getty Images

The constant stream of information about the novel coronvirus and COVID-19 can cause a lot of anxiety. Mental Floss created this semiweekly digest so you can peruse the news at your own pace—without feeling overwhelmed.

April 7, 2020

Almost 24 million people watched Queen Elizabeth II deliver a personal televised message about the coronavirus pandemic on Sunday, April 5. The queen thanked healthcare workers and those staying at home for their continued efforts in battling the outbreak, and said this address reminded her of her very first TV broadcast in 1940, when she offered a message to children who had been sent overseas for their own safety at the beginning of World War II. "We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return," the queen said. "We will be with our friends again. We will be with our families again. We will meet again." The queen rarely gives televised speeches apart from her annual Christmas message—this broadcast was only her fifth in her 68-year reign.

A tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. The zoo's chief vet Paul Calle tweeted that Nadia, a 4-year-old Malayan tiger, had tests confirmed at the USDA's National Veterinary Services Laboratory after showing respiratory symptoms. Three other tigers exhibited the same symptoms, and zoo officials believe the big cats were exposed to the virus by an asymptomatic zoo employee. The Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, expects all the cats to fully recover. In a press release, the USDA said it's unlikely that your pet cat could transmit the virus to you, but if you feel sick, it's best to stay away from Fluffy as long as you have symptoms.

Oscar-winning actor and University of Texas at Austin professor Matthew McConaughey hosted bingo night (via Zoom) for a group of residents at The Enclave at Round Rock, a senior living community in a suburb of Austin. Along with his wife, mom, and kids, McConaughey called out the numbers while the quarantined seniors played along at home.

Should you be wearing a mask when you go outside? The answer is complicated, but New York City's mayor has begun urging residents to wear a fabric face covering to reduce the chance the virus could spread through breathing or talking. Recent research suggests presymptomatic people could transmit the coronavirus more easily through aerosols than previously thought.

And finally, you may have a hard time finding hand sanitizer in stores these days, but if you do, check its expiration date.

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