A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

If you hold your eyelids open while sneezing, will your eyes pop out?

July 10, 1987

Dear Cecil:

Is there any truth to the claim that if you hold your eyelids open while sneezing, your eyes will pop out? I have never mustered the courage to try this, but I'm curious to know.

Cecil replies:

I can assure you with one hundred percent total confidence, Trevor, that you've got nothing to worry about. How do I know this? Because I used to haunt carnival freak shows as a kid. Shows you the value of a misspent youth.

I'll never forget one freak show performer I saw who had "popeyes" — the ability to open his eyelids wide open and bulge out his eyes at will. And I mean bulge to the point when you were convinced they were going to squirt across the room. Each eye was independently poppable, right-left-right-left.

It was a fascinating thing to watch, assuming you weren't too busy puking over your shoes. What it proved was that human eyes are pretty firmly anchored in place. What holds them in? Mostly the muscles that control eyeball movement. The eyelids play only an incidental role.

Your eyes do bulge out a bit when you sneeze. This gives a few people the willies. If you know someone like this, take 'em to a freak show. They'll feel so reassured.

Also, not to quibble, but it's just about impossible to hold your eyelids open while you sneeze. They snap shut by reflex. The reflex serves no purpose, so far as anybody knows; it's just the way you're wired up. The nerves serving the eyes and the nose are closely intertwined, and stimuli to the one often trigger some response in the other.

We've already discussed photic sneeze reflex. Similarly, sneezing (or yawning or vomiting) can cause not only blinking but tears. Some beauticians claim that if your eyes start to water while you're applying makeup, you can stop it by blowing your nose. There is something about this arrangement reminiscent of having to shut off the engine in your Yugo by dousing the lights. Don't blame me. I didn't design the apparatus, I just describe it.

He's been there

Dear Cecil:

I was reading your article about whether your eyeballs pop out if you sneeze with your eyes open. I can tell you without a doubt what will happen if you have the misfortune to have your eyes open when you hurl, and probably when you sneeze. (I assume the pressure exerted is about equal.) You break the blood vessels in your eyes thus turning your eyes blood red and having them sore for a week or two … yuck. I know this because it happened to me.

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