Ronda Cluff, 52, of Galloway Township, has a reaction every time she steps into the sun, or even a brightly lit room.
“I’ve been doing it my whole life. If I have to sneeze and can’t quite get it out, I’ll stare into a bright light,” Cluff said.
Other local residents have the same reaction, but have no problem letting a sneeze out.
“I sneeze five or six times in a row, all the time,” said Whitney Brennan, 32, of Egg Harbor Township.
Cluff and Brennan are like nearly of quarter of the world’s population, who can’t shake a sneeze in the bright lights. The “condition” is called the photic sneeze reflex or ACHOO, short for Autosomal dominant Compelling Helio-Ophthalmic Outburst. As the summer sun stays in the sky, so does that twitch of the nose.
“There are some hints that the medulla of the brain has a sneezing center,” said Henry Edinger, associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience at the New Jersey Medical School, part of Rutgers University in Newark. The medulla is located in the brain stem and is responsible for involuntary motions such as sneezing.
There is no real answer as to why when sunlight enters the eye, the medulla sends a signal for a sneeze.
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Edinger said.
But there are theories.
“The theory that I think is the most rational to me is that sneezing is caused by irritation or stimulation of the nasal area, either by physical means (like something in your nose) or some chemical,” Edigner said.
Edinger believes it is possible that when sunlight hits your eye, the brain mistakes that as a chemical reaction, causing the sneeze.
“There’s some kind of cross talk between the visual circuit and the trigeminal reflex circuit,” Edinger said.
The trigeminal nerve is responsible for sensation in the face and motor functions.
“It’s some kind of accidental cross talk,” Edinger said.
Edinger said 20% to 25% of the population has the condition, split evenly between men and women.
Turns out, the sneezing reflex may be due to genetics.
“Some studies suggest it runs in families. Research at 23andMe has identified 54 genetic markers associated with this quirky reaction to bright light,” said Liza Crenshaw, communications manager for the DNA testing site.
The reflex is autosomal dominant, meaning you only need one parent to have the abnormal gene to pass it down to a child.
There’s no “cure” for the reflex, at least not yet. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do if you suffer from ACHOO.
“There was a military health report about them being concerned about sneezing when they came into light. They recommended wearing sunglasses,” Edinger said.