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Question:

    Why does pepper make you sneeze?

Answer:    

    Because the chemical piperine, an irritant, gets into the nose.

A sneeze is a reflex that is triggered when nerve endings inside the mucous membrane of the nose are stimulated.

Pepper, be it white, black, or green, contains an alkaloid of pyridine called piperine. Piperine acts as an irritant if it gets into the nose. It stimulates (or irritates) the nerve endings inside the mucous membrane. This stimulation will cause you to sneeze. Actually, the nose wants to kick out this irritant and the only way it knows how to do this is by sneezing.

Did you know ...

  • Sneezing is called sternutation.
  • When you sneeze air rushes out your nose at a rate of 100 miles per hour!
  • There are an estimated 5 million scent receptors in the human nose.
  • Our noses produce an estimated one to two pints of mucus a day.

Pepper facts:

  • Known as the "king of spices" because it is one of the oldest and most popular spices in the world.
  • Pepper was so valuable that in ancient Greece and Rome it was used as currency.
  • It is believed that when the Goths defeated Rome in 410, they demanded a ransom of 3,000 pounds of pepper, along with other valuables such as silk.
  • During the middle ages, peppercorns were accepted in lieu of money for dowries, rent and taxes.
  • During the 19th century, Salem, Massachusetts played an important role in the world pepper trade and made some of America's first millionaires.
Standard DisclaimerRelated Web Sites
  • Gernot Katzer's Spice Pages External Link - The entry for piper nigrum includes information on the etymology and origin of black pepper. Also includes translation of pepper in many different languages and selected links for more information.
  • How Products are Made: Pepper External Link - Explains the process of manufacturing pepper.
  • Piper nigrum Information from NPGS/GRIN External Link- Provides references on the taxonomy, common names, economic impacts, and distribution of piper nigrum.
  • Why do we sneeze? External Link - by Alicia Ault in Smithsonian.com, December 29, 2015.
  • Why Do We Sneeze? External Link - from Scientific American. by Pamela Georgeson. "Sneezing is a physiologic response to the irritation of the respiratory epithelium lining of the nose."

Library of Congress Web SiteFurther Reading
  • Black pepper: Piper nigrum. Edited by P.N. Ravindran. Australia, Harwood Academic, 2000. 553 p.
  • Hughs, Meredith Saylers. Flavor foods: spices and herbs. Minneapolis, Lerner Publications, c2000. 88 p. (Juvenile)
  • Rosengarten, Frederic. The book of spices. Wynnewood, PA, Livingston Pub., 1969. 489 p.
  • Weiss, E. A. Spice crops. Wallingford, Oxon, U.K., New York, CABI Pub., c2002. 411 p.

SearchFor more print resources...
Search on "pepper spice," "piper nigrum," and "spices" in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Photograph of a pile of black peppercorns with a few in the bowl of a large white spoon
Black Pepper. External Link  From UCLA's Special Collection, "Spices."

Drawing of Pepper plant
Piper nigrum L.. External Link From UCLA's Special Collection, "Spices."

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 September 28, 2018
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