Every time I walk into bright sunlight my nose starts to tickle, my face tightens, and a pressure builds inside me. The tension grows as my body yearns for a sweet release.
Then, suddenly, I am liberated with one, satisfying achoo.
Remind you of another pleasurable release? For years, sex educators have compared the act of orgasming to the act of sneezing. And yet, while our noses do contain erectile tissue, the two processes don't actually resemble one another neurologically or physiologically.
While I was researching a possible connection between sneezing and orgasming, however (all in a day's work), I did learn about a phenomenon that may make you view your partner's winter nasal congestion in a new light—some people sneeze when sexually aroused, or right after orgasming.
Dr. Mahmood Bhutta, an ear, nose, and throat surgeon with Britain's National Health Service, helped bring this link to light a few years ago, after a doctor friend told him about a patient with the condition. “I thought it was quite strange," he told me over the phone. "I Googled it, and then I came across more people.”
The two physicians then set out to study if it was happening on a larger scale and published their findings in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine back in 2008. They determined that sneezing-while-aroused was an underreported phenomenon.
“I had one woman who said she divorced her husband because she knew about his little phenomenon," Bhutta said. "When he would go to certain cocktail parties, he would start sneezing."
But if sneezing and orgasming don't appear to be linked on the back end, why might they be linked in practice? “We still don’t know,” Bhutta told me, but his research has led him to believe that the correlation can be traced to the autonomic nervous system. "Certain functions that are automatic get a bit confused in the brain."
Bhutta explained it like this: The autonomic nervous system is responsible for functions that are not consciously directed by us, such as breathing and digestion. When we become aroused, a part of our autonomic nervous system called the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, which aids in erection for men and lubrication for women. But sometimes, the signals flying through the nervous system can lead to inadvertent functions—such as secretions in the nose, which can then lead to sneezing.
He believes the parasympathetic nervous system is key in part because previous research has suggested that other seemingly strange causes of sneezing—such as bright sunlight or having a full stomach—are also the result of triggering the parasympathetic nervous system.
“I’ve also reported on a man who says whenever he gets a full bladder, he knows, because he starts sneezing,” Bhutta told me. “Something is stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, which causes secretions and causes sneezing.”
Notably, some people also experience what's known among doctors as "honeymoon rhinitis," in which their nasal passages become stuffed up following sexual intercourse. A study from 2002 on the condition noted that the exact cause was unknown, but was probably linked to the parasympathetic nervous system.
“Sexual activity is associated with autonomic stimulation, with the parasympathetic segment becoming more active toward the culmination in orgasm," the study explains, going on to argue that "Autonomic imbalance with parasympathetic overactivity may occur … an effect which may be caused by the intense emotion during sexual intercourse."
Since publishing his report, Bhutta says that hundreds of people from around the world have reached out to tell him that they, too, sneeze when aroused. “People have contacted me and felt very grateful that it’s not just them,” he said. “It’s certainly common."
The most common question Bhutta gets from these individuals is how to treat the condition, but unfortunately, he said, “there’s nothing you can do." Other than trying to convince your lover that sneezing is sexy, of course—and keeping a box of tissues nearby.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.