Girl's Nonstop Sneezing Baffles Doctors

Last month, Brooke Owens of Asheville, N.C., began sneezing.

And she continued to sneeze nonstop for three weeks straight.

In what her doctors have dubbed a "medical mystery," Owens' sneezing spell has defied diagnosis time and time again. Doctors have ruled out allergies and neurological disorders.

But even though the cause remains unknown, her family says episodes have come and gone for about two years.

The condition has had profound effects on Owens' day-to-day life. At the height of this most recent bout, her sneezing became so bad that she had to be home-schooled.

Fortunately, for most of us, sneezing is an occasional inconvenience. But for others, like Owens, the impact of uncontrolled, repetitive sneezing can take a dramatic toll on daily activities.

And for many, the possible health impacts are nothing to sneeze at, either.

Hostage to a 'Machine Gun' Sneeze

For most of us, a sneeze is just a sneeze.

However, Dr. Clifford Bassett, an otolaryngology specialist at the Long Island College Hospital of Brooklyn, says there are many different varieties of sneezes, each of which may hint at the possible root causes of the affliction.

The monikers of these subtypes are evocative, to say the least -- the "trumpet sneeze," the "big, bad wolf sneeze," the "cartoon sneeze."

In most cases, he says, occasional bouts of sneezing are nothing to worry about. Bassett says any time there is irritation to the nasal mucosa -- the tender inner lining of the nasal passages -- the body's natural reaction is to sneeze.

"It's a protective reflex," he says. "In general, sneezing is a good thing."

As for Owens, Bassett classifies her condition as a case of what he calls "machine gun" sneezing. As the name implies, this variant involves a staccato series of sneezes, one right after the other.

In most cases, such sneezing is not terribly atypical.

"It's a phenomenon that is not uncommon," he says. "But in this patient's case, it lasted for three weeks, which makes it very unusual and interesting."

Putting the Lid on Sneezing Fits

Bassett says the fact that doctors have not yet determined the reasons behind Owens' condition suggests that new approaches may be needed to evaluate her.

"We really need to think out of the box when treating a patient like this, because the case here is excessive," Bassett says.

But in many cases, the sources of the irritation behind sneezing fits are easily found -- and perhaps include a cold or sinus infection, allergies or a foreign object lodged in a ticklish spot in the nasal passages.

Dr. Jordan Josephson, an otolaryngologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City and author of the book "Sinus Relief Now," says that the most likely culprit in Owens' case is the presence of something in her nasal passages that her body is trying to expel.

"Allergy is only one of the causes of sneezing, and Brooke Owens' sneezing can be caused by an irritant or a small or large foreign body," he says, adding that mold or bacteria inhaled into her sinuses could be to blame.

"There are many things that can be causing Brooke to sneeze, and once the problem is discovered there are many things that we can do to help Brooke."

Dr. Navin Mehta, surgical director of the ear, nose and throat department at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, says that absent allergies or an infection, the culprit is likely a foreign body or polyp -- a small growth inside the nasal passages.

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