ACHOO syndrome: What is it?

By Meredith W. Rutland • Published: January 26th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

You walk outside into the sunlight with your toddler in your arms. As the light hits his face, he starts sneezing. Two times. Four times. Six times. Eight times.

You start to worry that he’s getting sick, and the next day it happens again when he goes outside. He doesn’t have a cold, and he’s never had allergies. What in the world could be happening?

Your child could have photic sneeze reflex, a condition where you sneeze when you come in contact with direct sunlight. For the most part, the condition is shrouded in mystery since researchers aren’t completely sure why this condition makes people sneeze — in fact, they aren’t completely sure why anyone sneezes.

The reflex is also cleverly called autosomal dominant compelling helio-ophthalmic outburst syndrome, or ACHOO syndrome. It’s thought to be hereditary and affect about 25 percent of the population, although a study noted the condition may be more common in Caucasian women.

Usually, the problem is little more than annoying. You step outside, you sneeze two to seven times and you spend about 10 minutes explaining to your friends that you don’t have a cold or allergies. But the condition can be dangerous when someone is operating machinery or driving on the highway, and those with ACHOO syndrome should be wary when they feel a sneeze coming on while at the wheel.

ACHOO syndrome can also cause serious problems for folks about to have eye surgery. Sometimes, having needles inserted near the eyes can trigger the reflex even while anesthetized, and jerky sneezes are the last thing you want when there’s a sharp object near your eye. So make sure to tell your physician about it.

Sometimes, antihistamines or decongestants can help calm the sneezing.

The most important thing to remember is it’s a normal, relatively harmless condition. Just remember to say “Excuse me” whenever it acts up!