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The Straight Dope

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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. --Trevor Rigler, San Antonio

If you want to know something about courage, Trevor, try asking this question of your typical humorless physician. Fortunately, years of practice at this sort of thing have rendered me immune to embarrassment. I am happy to say that the chances of postsneeze de-oculation are approximately zip. The truth is it's just about impossible to keep your eyes open during a sneeze--they snap shut by reflex. There's no purpose to this, 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. You may recall a while back we discussed "photic sneeze reflex," in which a sudden exposure to bright light causes some people to sneeze. Conversely, 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 a routine out of the Three Stooges, but I don't justify these things, I just lays out the facts.

We have a question that has been plaguing us ever since "Ask Andy" declined to answer it some 30 years ago. Can hair turn white overnight from fright? We recall reading somewhere that during stressful events the few remaining dark hairs in a salt-and-pepper head can loosen and come out so that a person appears to be very much whiter. Is this true? We have been let down before, Uncle Cece, so please come through for us. --Susan Barcus Kay, MD, Los Angeles, and NWB, Seattle

I'm not saying you lack initiative, doc, but if this question had been bugging me for 30 years it might have crossed my mind to head down to the library. Doing so would have turned up a delightful essay on the subject by J.E. Jelinek, a dermatology professor at NYU. Overnight graying or whitening of hair has been reported for centuries, Jelinek says, and for almost as long as doctors have been arguing about whether it actually occurs, and if so, how. The hair of Thomas More, for one, is said to have become entirely white the evening before his execution in 1535. Henry of Navarre, later Henry IV of France, supposedly went suddenly white following his escape from the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572.

But the evidence for such stories is often highly suspect. Legend has it, for instance, that Marie Antoinette's hair turned white the night before she was beheaded. Several writers clearly state, however, that in fact her hair had lost its color long before. (One claims it turned suddenly white following her failed attempt to flee France in 1791.) Even in modern times reports of rapid graying often turn out to be secondhand or to have originated with doctors who examined the patient months after the supposed event.

The problem with sudden whitening, of course, is that hair is dead tissue, and thus, one would think, incapable of becoming entirely white until it grows out from the roots, a process that takes weeks. Still, as you indicate, there does seem to be one way that hair can appear to turn gray in a very short period of time. What happens is that a condition called "diffuse alopecia areata" may occur in somebody with a mix of normal and gray hairs. Alopecia can result in sudden, substantial hair loss, but for unknown reasons seems to affect mostly pigmented hairs, leaving white ones untouched. The impression one gets, therefore, is that the patient has become suddenly gray. The precise sequence of biological events resulting in alopecia is unknown, but it's thought emotional stress can contribute to it. No doubt this explains the fate of Cecil's own once-vigorous mop, now largely gone the way of the passenger pigeon. I just hope you folks appreciate it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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