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Question Why does pepper make you sneeze?


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

Black pepper: Piper nigrum.External link From “Spices: Exotic Flavors and Medicines,” History & Special Collections, UCLA Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library.

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.

Gathering pepper in India. Ambroise Paré. Paris, Gabriel Buon, 1579. National Library of Medicine.

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.
Edison kinetoscopic record of a sneeze, taken by W.K.L. Dickson. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Published: 11/19/2019. Author: Science Reference Section, Library of Congress

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