First of all, despite the symptom of sneezing after eating chocolate being fairly common, there isn’t a medical name for it. Therefore, I suggest the name ‘Chocoptarmosis, meaning ‘chocolate-induced sneezing’. You heard it on Guru first (send my Nobel Prize in the post).
To understand chocoptarmosis, we must first briefly discuss sneezing and ‘sun-sneezing’ and why they happen. Normally, when something irritates our nasal hairs (from breathing in dust, say), we sneeze. The nerve that sends messages between the nose and the brain, and brings about the sneeze reflex, is called the trigeminal nerve. As the ‘tri’ in the name suggests, it comes in three parts. Firstly, there is a top part, which covers the eyes and forehead (the upper ophthalmic branch); then there is a middle branch, which covers the nasal area (the maxillary branch); and there is the lower branch, which covers the tongue and jaw (the mandibular branch). Sneezes occur due to activity in the middle part – the maxillary branch. Normally, that is.
‘Sun-sneezing’ (aka the ‘photic sneeze reflex’) is when staring at bright light causes a sneeze. The exact reason is still unclear but one idea is that the there is a bit of faulty wiring: when bright light is detected by your eye, it should cause activity in the upper branch of the trigeminal nerve – making you blink and forcing the pupils to shrink. In ‘sun-sneezing’, the brain has some crossed wires and the middle branch also gets activated, resulting in a sneeze.
Chocoptarmosis may work in a similar way. The tongue has some connections with the trigeminal nerve and so a similar issue with crossed wires may mean that when the taste of chocolate stimulates the lower mandibular branch, the maxillary branch is also activated – again resulting in a sneeze.
Due to the lack of research into chocoptarmosis (which I think we all agree is a shocking oversight from the pharmaceutical industry), there is no known cure. Fortunately, it’s not particularly serious and you shouldn’t worry about it. Just keep a box of tissues nearby before diving into your box of chocolates.
Question from Jason via Facebook
Answer by James Crewdson
Footnote from Dr Stu:
There are other unusual causes of sneezes, including sex and sexual arousal. Sexually-induced sneezing is similarly thought to be due to some ‘faulty wiring’. Perhaps there is a connection between this condition and the excitement of eating chocolate…?
Be aware also that sneezing can also be a symptom of a food allergy. Allergies are usually accompanied by other symptoms such as runny nose, puffy face or tongue, a rash and itching. It is always worth getting checked out if there are any problematic symptoms.