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What happens if you sneeze during eye surgery?

Sneezing during eye surgery can have serious consequences. The eye is a very delicate organ and eye surgery requires extreme precision by the surgeon. Even a small disruption could lead to permanent damage or loss of vision. Understanding why sneezing during surgery is so dangerous and what steps are taken to prevent sneezing can help ease anxiety for patients undergoing eye procedures.

Why is sneezing dangerous during eye surgery?

There are a few key reasons why a sneeze during eye surgery can be extremely problematic:

  • A sneeze causes a strong expulsion of air and particles through the nose and mouth. This burst of air can disrupt delicate eye tissues.
  • The physical act of sneezing involves rapid eye closure and facial movements that can interfere with surgical instruments positioned around the eye.
  • A sneeze reflex causes an involuntary contraction of the muscles around the eye. This can cause the eye to abruptly move at a key moment during surgery.
  • Sneezing can cause a sudden rise in blood pressure and heart rate. These physiological changes can increase bleeding risks during surgery.

In essence, the forces generated by sneezing don’t mix well with the intricate manipulations required during eye surgery. Even a minor disruption can lead to corneal abrasions, ruptured incisions, or complication such as uncontrolled bleeding. This underscores why preventing sneezes is a major priority before eye surgery.

How do doctors prevent sneezing during eye surgery?

Doctors and medical staff take several important steps to limit the chances of a patient sneezing during eye surgery:

  • Prescreening questions – Patients are asked if they have any allergies or respiratory issues that may make them prone to sneezing.
  • Medications – Antihistamines, decongestants, or anticholinergic drugs may be administered before surgery to reduce mucus production and sneeze risk.
  • Anesthesia – General anesthesia renders the patient fully unconscious and unable to have reflex reactions like sneezing.
  • Local anesthetic – Numbing eye drops and nerve blocks prevent sneeze-triggering irritation of the eye.
  • Sterile environments – Operating rooms have special air filters to limit airborne particles that could cause sneezing.
  • Calm environments – Soothing music, relaxed lighting, and minimal noise help keep patients calm and less likely to sneeze.

Even with multiple preventive measures in place, a persistent sneeze reflex can still overcome these protections in some cases. Let’s look at what happens if a sneeze does occur despite all precautions.

What happens if you sneeze during eye surgery?

If a patient ends up sneezing during eye surgery, the outcome can vary greatly depending on the type of procedure and the point at which the sneeze occurs:

  • Minor disruption – During routine procedures like LASIK, a sneeze may briefly affect laser alignment or corneal flap position. This may result in suboptimal vision correction but is unlikely to cause major damage.
  • Significant complications – With more complex surgeries like cataract removal or retina repair, a poorly-timed sneeze could lead to ripped incisions, lens displacement, retinal detachment, or hemorrhage.
  • Surgery halted – Doctors may immediately halt the procedure if a sneeze occurs to assess the eye and determine if it is safe to continue operating.
  • Vision loss – Worst case scenario is a forceful sneeze at a critical surgical moment causes enough eye trauma that permanent vision damage or functional blindness results.

Fortunately, total vision loss from an intraoperative sneeze is exceptionally rare. But more minor impairments like a torn corneal flap, vitreous hemorrhage, or ruptured sutures are possible. The surgeon may be able to repair these issues and complete the operation, but additional healing time and medical intervention would be needed.

How often do patients sneeze during eye surgery?

Research indicates that the incidence of sneezing during eye surgery is very low when proper precautions are followed:

  • One study found no intraoperative sneezing in over 15,000 cataract surgeries when anticholinergic medication was used.
  • In a review of 195 LASIK procedures, only one patient (0.5%) experienced an episode of sneezing on the operating table.
  • Estimates suggest sneezing occurs in less than 2% of all eye surgeries when anti-sneeze steps are taken.

These very low sneeze rates demonstrate that preventive measures like anesthesia and anti-allergy drugs are typically effective. However, doctors still take this risk extremely seriously due to the potential for permanent vision damage from even a single poorly-timed sneeze.

What should you do if you need to sneeze before surgery?

If you feel the urge to sneeze immediately before undergoing eye surgery, it is imperative to inform the surgical staff. Steps may be taken to allow the sneeze to happen before the operation begins, including:

  • Delaying the procedure several minutes to allow the sneeze reflex to pass.
  • Administering additional anti-sneeze medications.
  • Having you blow your nose and clear any nasal irritation.
  • Adjusting anesthesia or sedation levels if under general anesthesia.

With communication, the doctors can modify the protocol to accommodate an incoming sneeze and maximize the chances of having an uninterrupted surgery thereafter. While an ill-timed sneeze can’t always be prevented, doctors have an array of strategies to mitigate this uncommon but serious surgical risk.


In summary, sneezing during eye surgery can be extremely problematic due to the delicate nature of ocular tissues. Doctors make every effort to avoid sneezing through medical therapy, controlled environments, and proper anesthetics. Thankfully, significant sneezing events are very rare in eye surgery. Clear communication from the patient if any sneeze sensation arises is key to allow modifications to prevent intraoperative sneezing disasters. With proper precautions, the chances of catastrophe from an eye surgery sneeze are extremely low.