Why we say “Bless you” after sneezes

Shreya Ravindran, Features Editor

Often, people say “God bless you!” after hearing a sneeze, but never after a cough or a burp. To the astonishment of many, there are actually several reasons as to why sneezes get this special treatment.

In the past, it was believed that when people sneezed, their souls were casted out of their bodies, becoming susceptible to an invading evil presence. Therefore, the phrase “Bless you!” served as a shield against evil influences. Other people believed that sneezing was a symptom of the Justinian’s plague that occurred from 541 to 542 AD. Because of this, it became customary to say “God bless you!” as a means of preventing sneezers from sickness and eventual death.

It is important to note that some cultures say “God bless you!” for a different purpose. To some, a sneeze represents a sign of good fortune, and as such, responses to sneezes also include German word “Gesundheit,” the Spanish expression “Salud,” and the Hebrew phrase “LaBri’ut,” all meaning good health.

The popular opinion today is that the heart stops during a sneeze. In other words, people die for a moment due to the ceasing of cardiovascular activity. However, this is certainly false: During a sneeze, pressure changes lead to alterations in blood flow, which consequently can affect heart rate. The electrical activity in the heart remains unimpeded, and thus, as amusing as it sounds, sneezes do not cause momentary death.

Clearly, the phrase adopted by English speakers, “God bless you!” stems from numerous beliefs from the past that have seeped into our present day language.