Why Do We Say “Bless You” When Someone Sneezes?

  • Man about to sneeze
Man about to sneeze
Credit: Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Sternutation, the medical term for sneezing, is a sudden, forceful, involuntary burst of air through the nose and mouth. It can be triggered by irritants in the nose or throat, environmental allergies, or viral upper respiratory infections. Some people even experience photic sneezing, which is sneezing in response to bright light, such as sunlight. The condition is formally known as autosomal dominant compelling helio ophthalmic outburst syndrome. That’s right, ACHOO syndrome.

Regardless of the reason for a sneeze, the polite response is commonly “bless you” or “God bless you.” Unlike with other bodily functions, particularly the closely associated cough, it is considered poor manners to let a sneeze go unanswered. Saying “bless you” is such an expected social custom that not saying it can lead to an awkward and uncomfortable silence, which might explain why a singular sneeze can garner several blessings from people nearby. The question is, why exactly is the phrase “bless you” the standard response to a sneeze?

Credit: UniversalImagesGroup via Getty Images

A Prayer To Protect the Soul

For most of history, and before the advent of modern medicine in the late 19th century, life could be brutally brief. Globally, the average life expectancy of a newborn in 1900 was just 32 years. By 2021, the number had more than doubled to 71 years. Death took many forms, but infectious diseases, including bubonic plague and influenza, could wipe out entire communities in a matter of months. So any outward sign of illness, such as sneezing, was reason for concern — and in turn, prayer.

You may also like