Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

AI: The Celebrated Sneezing Girl of Chesapeake County

With the latest update to the backward walking cheerleader story, I admit I made a snap judgement the moment I heard this story about a 12 year old girl who sneezes between 8 and 20 times a minute, or about 12,000 times a day (see video here). Seems the machine gun sneezing started a few weeks ago after she had contracted a cold. 

The cheerleader is/was most probably suffering psychogenic dystonia after receiving a seasonal flu vaccine in August. And well, my first thought about the sneezing girl was there was probably a strong psychogenic component to her condition as well.

Not only that, but with the recent shenanigans of the Balloon Boy dad, I’m way more wary of people in bizarre news stories these days. The cynic in me says the sneezing might just be an act.

Of course, it’s possible the girl is truly suffering from something unusual. And if the sneezes are real, she is no doubt miserable, and I hope the best for her recovery.

But what do you think of this girl’s condition? Is there a psychogenic component? Can the nasal membranes be in a constant state of irritation that would cause nonstop sneezing? 

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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34 Comments

  1. And well, my first thought about the sneezing girl was there was probably a strong psychogenic component to her condition as well.

    The cynic in me says the sneezing might just be an act.

    I don’t think you were trying to imply this, but please do not make the mistake that psychogenic illness is the same as putting on act.

    As for the sneezing girl, I’ll assume her symptom is legitimate until I have some evidence otherwise.

  2. After watching the video of the sneezing girl, I wonder if she has a tic disorder. I know that tic disorders tend to peak around puberty. I had my worst symptoms when I was 11, and this girl is 12, so it seems reasonable. I don’t know why it would be triggered by a cold, but it could be something with brain inflammation.

  3. I’ve had days in the past where I sneezed two or three times a minute for most of a day, until I was sufficiently infused with enough antihistamines to stop it.

    I don’t have any problem believing that there are conditions under which it could last a lot, lot longer.

  4. @mulveyr:

    This is what I wondering. I’m a two or three sneeze at the most person; just enough I suppose to discharge whatever is causing the irritation. And not suffering from any alergies, I’m done until the next irritant comes along. What causes your day-long sneezing?

  5. Despite the idiotic headline of “doctor’s baffled” the article mentions that “Doctors believe it may be that she is suffering from an ‘irretractable psychogenic disorder’ that could be triggered by stress.”

    The mother has even taken her to a therapist along those lines, so hopefully that can help.

    Ugh, my brothers and I also developed various tics around that age, too, but this is a really disruptive one!

  6. I used to suffer from regular nosebleeds, and in high school I had my nose cauterized to help take care of it. If you’re blissfully unaware of the procedure, it involves the doctor putting a long, thin wire with a bit of a caustic chemical up your nose and, essentially, burning up the weak spot to scar it over and strengthen it. It worked great in terms of the nosebleeds, but for four or five hours after the procedure I sneezed at, probably, about the rate of the girl in the story. It was… unpleasant.

    I know that’s not the same as a few weeks, but I’d say it’s at least possible that it comes from purely physical causes, though (as some others have said) I think it’s more likely that it’s either a tic or psychogenic.

  7. @Nicole:

    I looked around on the web for sneeze with eyes open information. Mythbusters were able to hold their eyes open and sneeze:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6D5fJYHbK7k

    But they were only trying to see if one’s eyeballs would fall out if they were successful. According to other sources, closing one’s eyes when sneezing is simply an automatic involuntary response.

    This girl seems to overcome that involuntary response. She clearly sneezes with her eyes open at about 1:40 of the video without any aid. See the attached image I captured in mid-sneeze:

    http://skepchick.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/1.jpg

    I don’t have any idea if this means anything or is relevant to the story, but like you, I noticed it.

  8. In the spring some kinds of grass pollen will set me off where I’ll sneeze fifteen or twenty times in rapid fire. I find it amusing (my kids find it fucking hilarious) because I know it will stop. However it is uncomfortable and I can not imagine that going on and on. It’ll be interesting to see if the cause and or cure are sorted out. Perhaps some nerve inflammation and even if psychogenic my understanding is that it wouldn’t be something this girl could decide to stop doing.

    At least a vaccination gone bad wasn’t being blamed!

  9. @Sam Ogden: Oo, what do I win! Box of tissues? :-)

    Something just looked weird like it wasn’t a typical sneeze. It took me moment to catch on to the eye thing. But the woman in the video mentioned it, too, as well as the fact that it’s not a “nasal sneeze.” So maybe the involuntary eye-closing is a function of a particular type of sneeze? *MindBoggle*

    @mulveyr: Really?! I’ve tried, especially while driving, and just can’t do it. But you have to put effort into it, right? Whereas she doesn’t seem to be trying to keep them open.

    Yarr… watching that video again makes me feel so bad for her.

  10. @Nicole:

    Oh, I didn’t realize it was mentioned in the video. I watched it at work, and had the sound very low, so I must’ve missed it. Or maybe I caught it, and it just didn’t register consciously.

    At any rate, I guess you still win a box of tissues!

  11. I recall reading about a man who had this sort of condition and it turned out he had something in his ear . . .a hair, I think.

    My bosses sneeze when they could out of their offices into the sunny foyer. Apparently an “allergy to sunlight” is documented. Me, any strong smell.

  12. I haven’t had a sneezing binge, but I coughed for 4 months some years ago, 24 hours a day, despite constant doses of codeine-laced cough medicine. By month two, I had lost my voice and my doctor was baffled. Tests finally indicated that it was a flare-up of sarcoidosis, not, as had been originally thought, an allergy or an infection.

    I feel loads of sympathy for the sneezer. Such things interfere with pretty much everything in life.

  13. Weird, while watching the video, and trying to figure out if she was fake-sneezing, I noticed her eyes were open a lot, which I thought was impossible to do while sneezing. But according to snopes, a rare few can actually sneeze with their eyes open. Hmm.

  14. I don’t know very much about tics, but I think it’s fairly obvious that this is not “sneezing.”

    I’ve had allergies that have left me feeling the urge to sneeze, unabatedly, for most of the day.. My eyes water, my nose is rubbed raw, and the sneeze actually involves my nose.

    I’m kind of confused as to why she and her mother even thought this was a sneeze to begin with.. it’s more like a weird cough.

  15. As I watched her on one or the other of those morning shows I don’t usually watch, it was quickly apparent to anyone who has sneezing fits that they aren’t actually sneezes. No expectorant, eyes wide open, no catching of the breath. It seems like an odd tic to me. Especially because it stops when she’s sleeping. And she’s definitely not faking. Kids don’t usually have that long of an attention span.

  16. @gwenny: Like your bosses I too am “allergic” to sunlight. Though any sufficiently bright light will do. As will sufficiently…er…randy thoughts. Which is all very helpful when I start to lose a sneeze. All I have to do is run to a window and relief is mine. Because I like to sneeze?

  17. @catgirl: I’m with you on this. I think it is a tic disorder. These aren’t really “sneezes”, per se, so it’s probably a tic. Somewhat unusual, but not unheard of.

    For those of you who are unfamiliar with this disorder check this:

    http://www.minddisorders.com/Py-Z/Tic-disorders.html

    BTW, it is not considered necessarily a psychogenic problem but something in the child’s brain chemistry, and could be genetic, as it runs in families.

  18. @Garrison22:

    Yeah, I have a tic disorder. I’m not “expert” enough to diagnose someone, but I really think she has it. When I was just a year younger than her (11), I had a tic where I had to blink and roll my eyes constantly because it felt like there was something in there. For all my other tics, there is just the internal urge to do it and it’s obvious to me that it’s a tic, but sometimes it really feels like you actually have to do it because of an irritant or something. There is also a hypothesis that tic disorders and OCD can be triggered in childhood by an auto-immune response to certain infections, although this idea hasn’t been completely validated yet. Sometimes it just comes on suddenly for no reason, and her infection might have just been a coincedence.

  19. @catgirl:

    So, what does that do to you psychologically? I mean, does it become maddening, or do you get to a point where you don’t even realize you’re doing it?

    This is an area (among about a million others) I’m not all that familiar with, but this discussion has prompted me to look into a bit more. It’s very interesting. Perhaps I’ll post something more about tic disorders.

  20. @Sam Ogden:

    Well, my tic disorder is pretty mild. The worst symptom is embarrassment. Fortunately, my most extreme tics happened when I was young enough to be less self-conscious. It’s actually possible to suppress tics to an extent; they’re not like spasms. It’s sort of like if you had an itch and chose not to scratch it. My current tics are mostly with my fingers, so if I really have to do it, I pretend that I’m cracking my knuckles or rubbing my hands to warm them, so it looks like I meant to do it. It works pretty well but if I suppress them too long, I’ll have a big tic freak-out later when I’m alone to release the built up pressure. I’m just thankful that I’ve never had vocal tics.

    I also have OCD, which is the bigger problem for me although it’s still relatively mild. The two disease have a high co-morbidity because they’re both caused by problems in the same area of the brain, the basal ganglia. It’s just something I’ve always had, so it doesn’t bother me too much. I’m just used to it.

  21. @catgirl: The co-morbidity thing makes sense, since the anxiety of OCD often leads to tic-like behaviors (rituals that resemble tics), such as tapping or knuckle-cracking, etc. I have two close friends who have been diagnosed with OCD and see those kinds of behaviors, especially when they are really stressed.

    You seem to have it under control, but one of my friends does not, and she drives almost everyone we know a bit nuts when she is in the middle of a “freak-out” (as you called it). She is most likely ADHD as well, just to add insult to injury. It’s not pretty. She refuses to see that it is destroying her relationships with people and does not seek therapy.

    Just read a well-written novel about a guy with Tourette’s, taken from his point of view: “Motherless Brooklyn” by Jonathan Lethem.

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