Why do we sneeze?

Sneezing is usually caused by nasal irritation and sometimes by blocking bacteria in the throat, lungs or the passages of the nose. Substances that cause allergies such as pollen, pepper, animal dander, dust, and other particles that cause allergies are generally harmless, but when they irritate the nose, the body responds to them by attempting to expel them through the nasal passages.  


How should you respond to a sneeze?  What should you say?


Different responses to sneezes 

All countries have their ways of responding to sneezes.


In English, it’s “God bless you.” In German, they say “Gesundheit,” which means “(good) health (to you)”. In French, the response “A vos souhaits” meaning, “for your wishes”. In Spanish, it’s “Salud”, and in Italian, “Salute”. Every country has its own way.


In Portugal, we say a few different things:


  • Santinho/Santinha
  • Deus te/lhe ajude or Deus te abençoe
  • Saúde


Why use these different expressions, and what do they mean?


Legends and superstitions


The varied responses to sneezing largely originated from ancient superstitions. Wishing well of the person who sneezed is something that probably started thousands of years ago. The Romans would say, "Jupiter care of you," or, "Save", which meant "good health to you." Meanwhile, the Greeks would wish each other "long life".


The phrase "God bless you" is attributed to Pope Gregory the Great, who ruled in the 6th century during the Black Plague. Sneezing or coughing were obvious symptoms of illness, so it became customary to respond to a sneeze with blessings or wishes of good health. After all, if someone sneezed, it was likely they were soon going to die.


Some people believed that sneezing meant that the soul was escaping the body through the nose, so saying "health" would prevent the Devil from taking that soul. Others believed the opposite: that demonic spirits used the sneeze as an opportunity to enter the body of the person. There was also a misconception that the heart stopped momentarily during a sneeze and that saying "health" was a way to welcome the person back to life.




The expression "Santinho," which is said after a sneeze, is an appeal to the saints for protection of one's soul. It comes from the time of the Black Plague, as mentioned above.


But as you’ve noticed, there are two expressions here: “Santinho” and “Santinha”. Which do you use? Do women say “Santinha” and men say “Santinho”? Or do you use different words depending on who sneezes?


When “Santinho” is used to wish health on someone who just sneezed, it is understood that traditionally it is an adjectival use. Usually, the response to the sneeze is in agreement with the recipient of exclamation. As a speaker, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. What matters is the gender of the person who sneezed.


However, it is also possible to consider “Santinho” an interjection. When it is used alone, without anything that justifies its use as an adjective, we always say “Santinho”. That’s because interjections are invariable words. When used as an interjection, it’s “Santinho”, regardless of the gender or number of the subject who speaks.


In this way, “Santinho” is similar to other cases where words that were originally adjectives lost that function and became interjections. For example, “Pronto”, as in, Pronto, amigos, vamos embora!”


Examples and exercises:


1. I’m a woman and one girl sneezes.  

I say: Santinha!


2. I’m a man and one boy sneezes.  

I say: Santinho!


3. I’m a woman and one boy sneezes.

I say: Santinho!


4. I’m a man and one girl sneezes.

I say: Santinha!


Now it’s your turn! Do you say “Santinho” or “Santinha”?


1. You’re a man in a restaurant with your friends, and a man sneezes.

2. You’re a woman in a shopping mall and a woman sneezes.

3. You’re a boy playing football and a girl, before she can say hello, sneezes.

4. You’re a girl in a cinema with your boyfriend and he sneezes.


Deus te/lhe ajude or Deus te abençoe

This superstition was born with Pope Gregory the Great, during the time of the bubonic plague. Like “Santinho”, "God bless you" was something you said to someone who let out a sneeze, because it meant they could possibly be affected by the disease.


“Deus te ajude” or “Deus lhe ajude” literally means “God helps you”, but in reality, it’s a wish for your health.



“Saúde” is an expression used to wish wellbeing or happiness to someone, usually during giveaways or farewells. It’s also used to wish health upon someone who just sneezed.


One last note:

When you sneeze once, usually in Portugal we say “Santinho/a”. When you sneeze a second time, we say “Deus te ajude”. If you sneeze the third time (this isn’t so common), then it’s “Deus, te faça feliz”. Of course, this can change from person to person, according to habits or the person's age.


Now if you’re ever in Portugal when somebody sneezes, you’ll know what to say!


Hero Image by mcfarlandmo  (CC BY 2.0)