Thursday, July 15, 2010

When Someone Sneezes

by Mark B. Johnson, MD, MPH
When someone sneezes, I usually say, “Bless you!” It’s a habit. And I want to seem polite. But what I’m usually thinking is, “Curse you!” Especially if they don’t cover, or if they sneeze into their hands.

I really get upset if someone near me on an airplane sneezes. By “near me” I mean in the same airplane. We all know they don’t circulate the air much, to save on fuel costs. But it’s really the dry humidity that messes up our sinuses. I almost always get a cold or a sinus infection after I’ve been on a long flight. I don’t know anybody cool who gets sinus infections.

I’ve heard we say “Bless you!” because people used to think we sneezed our souls out. The blessing was a way of protecting the soul while it was loose and vulnerable. Others thought the heart stopped when we sneezed. It doesn’t. During the Black Plague some believed a sneeze was a signal of impending death. A blessing was critical. It was a benediction for the soon-to-be departed.

But now we know better. Now we know those sneezing Black Plague victims killed a lot of those who were blessing them. They should have been cursing them instead.

I tell my staff that the most common bioterrorist is someone coming to work with a cold. Most of my staff hide from me if they have a cold. They think I’ll get mad and send them home. I probably would, but what I really want is for them to stay away from me. It seems to be working.

I’ve got to fly tomorrow. I’ll probably take some saline spray. I wish I could take more than just 3 ounces. The Transportation Security Agency guys will probably examine my bottle in the little plastic bag and then say, “Okay! Have a nice day!” I’ll probably say, “Okay! Thank you!” But inside, I’ll really be saying, “Curse you!”

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