Each week, OMRF Chief Medical Officer Dr. Judith James opens “Adam’s Journal” to answer a medical question from Adam Cohen, OMRF’s senior vice president & general counsel.
My father and one of my sons have a strange reaction when they look directly at the sun or a bright light: They sneeze. What’s going on?
Dr. James Prescribes
It sounds like they both have autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst syndrome. Or, as it’s more commonly known, ACHOO syndrome. (Yes, some scientists have a sense of humor.)
As you might have guessed, the condition is genetic. Although initially suspected to be linked to a single gene, researchers have since found associations with multiple genes.
ACHOO syndrome starts with crossed signal involving the trigeminal nerve, a facial nerve that connects to the eyes and nose. When bright light hits the eyes, it causes the pupils to constrict, but in people with the syndrome, it can also trigger sneezing.
It most often occurs on initial exposure to the sun or bright light. Think of emerging from a tunnel while driving or exiting a dark building interior into the sunlight.
While sneezing at the sun may sound odd to you, studies suggest that the condition affects somewhere from 3-7% of the population. It seems to be more common in females and those with a deviated septum.
Reports also indicate that the syndrome differs from person to person. For some, it only happens occasionally and might trigger a sneeze or two. For others, the reaction can be much more frequent, and it’s been reported to cause a half-dozen sneezes or more.
The syndrome doesn’t carry any health risks, although I suppose a tendency to sneeze when exiting a dark tunnel could pose a driving hazard (and would probably be even more dangerous on a motorcycle). Scientists in the Air National Guard determined that ACHOO syndrome posed a risk for combat pilots, and I must confess that I’d also feel better if my commercial airline pilot didn’t have this trait.
At least in the lay press, it’s been suggested that sunglasses can “cure” this condition. I couldn’t find a peer-reviewed study backing this up. Still, I can’t imagine a pair of Ray-Bans would exacerbate the condition – and they might help ensure that future road trips avoid any post-tunnel sneezing fits.
Do you have a health query for Dr. James? Email email@example.com and your question may be answered in a future column!