Why Does Chocolate Make Some People Sneeze?

Question: Why Does Chocolate Make Some People Sneeze?

Answer: We’ve been hearing this one for years; there are those who swear up and down that chocolate makes some people sneeze, yet they are not allergic to chocolate. So what’s the scoop? Are these people imagining things, or can chocolate really make you sneeze?

Yes! Chocolate can make some people sneeze, in the same way that bright sunlight or mints or red wine or other apparently unrelated triggers do. There is a phenomenon called “photic sneeze reflex” (“photic” is for bright lights, the most common cause of this type of sneezing). One theory about this reflex involves overstimulation of the optic nerve (which can occur when you look at bright sunlight) and that it somehow messes with the trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sneeze production.

But that doesn’t explain why some people sneeze when they eat chocolate. Sneezing is a result of breathing in a foreign particle, some kind of irritant. The body rids itself of these irritants with a sneeze. Yet this type of sneezing is not associated with an allergy to chocolate. Clearly, this reflex is not well-understood. It is thought that the reflex is transmitted hereditarily, and it afflicts roughly 20 to 35 percent of the population. The National Center for Biotechnology Information refers to photic sneeze reflex by its technical name, Autosomal Dominant Compelling Helioopthalmic Syndrome (ACHOO for short—no kidding; look it up).

Luckily, the photic sneezing that results from eating chocolate is not serious. From anecdotal evidence we’ve seen, darker chocolate (70% and above) tends to induce sneezing in more people. What to do if you love chocolate but it makes you sneeze? Have a few tissues at hand and get ready for some puzzled looks when you explain ACHOO to others in the room, but know that you don’t need to stop consuming one of your favorite foods.