Aachoo! Alternatives to Saying, "Bless You!"

For many people, saying "Bless you!" after someone sneezes is a knee-jerk reaction. What does it mean? Most avid blessers couldn't tell you. If it's a wish for good health, why doesn't the same custom apply to coughing fits? In our society, saying "Bless you!" is often considered proper behavior, but are sneezing benedictions really necessary?

It's not surprising that most out-and-proud atheists avoid offering blessings after sneezes. And it's not surprising that some devout Christians are compelled to correct a "Bless you!" by responding "God bless you." Each group has spent enough time thinking about god and religion to not let this cultural custom slip by unnoticed.

But for the vast majority of Americans, "Bless you" is just what you say when someone sneezes. It isn't anything more than a polite phrase that has been hammered into their psyches by well-intentioned parents and teachers. In the interest of critical thinking, perhaps it's time that people examine the reasons behind this cultural nicety.

Origins of "Bless you!"

The practice of blessing someone who sneezes has been around for so long that no one is entirely sure where the custom began. There are many theories behind the blessing, all of which are based on superstition. According to Snopes.com, here are five of sneeze-blessings' most common origin theories:
  1. It was once thought that a powerful sneeze could expel a person's soul. Saying, "Bless you!" would cast a protective shield around the soul so it could return to the body before Satan had a chance to snatch it.
  2. A sneeze was the body's way of expelling an invading evil spirit. Saying, "Bless you!" would protect the sneezer from having the evil spirit re-enter his body. 
  3. People once thought the heart would stop beating during a sneeze (it doesn't). Saying, "Bless you!" was a plea that the sneezer would not die.
  4. Some believe the practice began when people thought a sneeze was a sure first sign of having a deadly illness, like the bubonic plague. Saying, "Bless you!" was meant to discourage the disease from taking hold, or to offer good luck in the afterlife, as the sneezer would surely be dead soon.
  5. There's also a theory that a sneeze was considered lucky or a good omen. Saying, "Bless you!" would be a way for the sneezed-upon to return a blessing to the sneezer.
Sneezing Etiquette

Is it rude to not say anything after a person sneezes? It depends. Proper sneezing etiquette includes many steps that people often ignore. When a person sneezes, he should always cover his nose and mouth with a tissue, or the crook of his elbow, to avoid spreading germs. He should then quietly say, "excuse me." If possible, he should leave the room before blowing his nose.

Consciously making a decision to stop the perpetuation of a superstition by staying quiet after a sneeze is arguably less offensive than someone sneezing without covering his nose and mouth. A case could also be made that it's more polite for the sneezer to say "Excuse me" than for those within earshot to say "Bless you!" but most people say nothing after they sneeze.

Alternatives to Saying, "Bless you!"

Because saying "Bless you!" has become such a cultural norm, many Americans--regardless of religious belief or non-belief--worry that it is rude to not respond to a sneeze. Yet the way to respond is largely a matter of personal preference.

For those who are undecided about the situation, there is often an uncomfortable "should-you, shouldn't-you" moment that follows any sneeze. Here are five "Bless you!" alternatives to consider:

  1. Say nothing at all. (See Sneezing Etiquette above.)
  2. Say, "Gesundheit!" which is German for "[to your] health."
  3. Say, "Salute!" which is Italian for "[to your] health." 
  4. Offer a tissue, if you have one handy to offer.
  5. For Seinfeld fans: say, "You are soooo good looking!"

Some people are offended when others do not say, "Bless you!" after a sneeze. Others are offended by the superstitious or religious implications of sneeze benedictions. For atheists who want to politely acknowledge the social custom, a wish for good health (Gesundheit! or Salute!) is often the best choice.

What do you say when someone sneezes?


  1. I knew about #2, expelling the evil spirit, but had not heard the others. My grandmother always used to say "salute". I think I'm going to start doing that also. What do you say when someone doesn't cover their mouth and just lets it rip so loud that you can hear it 4 cubes over?

  2. According to Emily Post you're supposed to bring that person a box of tissues and say, "It sounds like you're getting a cold. I hope you feel better." And if they don't get the hint, add, "Covering your sneeze with a tissue will keep from spreading the cold to others."

    I say gesudnheit, but I like salute, too. :-)

  3. Next time an atheist sneezes instead of Bless you I'll say F--- You! These people are just ridiculous

    1. No, religion is ridiculous.
      Religion is supposed to bring joy and love, but it always the ones who claim to be religious that appear to hate others the most. The reason why atheists discuss how to be polite without using the denotation of God or religion is to avoid offence to atheists AS WELL AS believers of other religions.
      As Susan politely asks, read the blog before making assumptions. This blog may also be useful for you: http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Polite

    2. lol that dude got owned

    3. This shows how religion fosters mental illness

  4. Anonymous, I'm sorry you harbor so much hate and resentment toward "these people."

  5. I am sick and tired of them pushing their non beliefs on everyone. When we can not say the word God, can not have anything that resembles a cross ( Example the World Trade center building pieces ) This IS still a country where we believe in Freedom of Religion and speech. But they only want to shut everyone else up "Because they are Offended" We can not have red and white wrapping paper at school, since that is CHRISTMAS colors.... Can you not see how ridiculous it is? I don't care what you believe, just don't PUSH your beliefs on the the rest of us. Like I said I can see a Star of David and it does NOT offend me... so why does it to you?

    1. You must live a blissful life because you have a strong sense of ignorance. I am not an atheist, nor do I practice Christianity and I feel more "pushed and offended" by Christians than I ever have atheists, but to generalize one group of people using their religion is complete blasphemy. Just because you practice the same religion or anti-religion as someone else doesn't mean that you are exactly the same. Many priests, especially Catholics, have been caught molesting young children, does that mean all Catholics have a tendency to molest small children? I sure hope not!
      And the reason that so many Christian customs have been removed from society is because, surprise to you, Christians aren't the only ones that live on this planet. How would you feel if your country was ruled by Muslims, and you were forced to say "In Allah we trust..." every single day? You would have a lot to say about it, wouldn't you? Times are changing, people are changing, traditional customs need to change with the human race. (And about the red and white, Christmas isn't the only holiday celebrated at that time of year. Ever heard of Kwanzaa or Hanukkah?)This all is only ridiculous to you because you are a very close-minded individual. You don't see the other side of the story. If you want red and white wrapping paper, use it at home. If you like crosses, decorate your whole house in them, but when you're out in public, you need to consider and accept the views of others, not just your own or the people of your religion. The earth does not orbit around Christianity.

    2. Atheism is not a belief, therefore can not be pushed on to anyone, fyi. Plus, I have never met an atheist who was offended by Christmas or the Star of David. I am an atheist, I am not offended by any holiday, religious or otherwise. Ignorance, however, is offensive.

    3. If only America was a country where the Christian faith was in the majority... If only there could be a Christian president... Then, maybe, your views would gain more acceptance in the mainstream... Oh, wait. You ARE in the majority and almost every single elected politician on all levels, local, state and federal are Christian...

      I have no patience for folks in the majority who claim they are being attacked at every corner. Get some perspective.

  6. It seems like you didn't read this post closely. There are some atheists (anti-theists) who are against religion, just as there are some religious people who are determined to convert everyone to their faith. Both of these groups are likely to already have strong ideas about how they want to reply when someone sneezes--and that's fine.

    This post was specifically addressed to those in the middle: people who are uncomfortable with saying "god bless you," but don't want to appear rude either. I've met many people (atheists and believers) who fall into that group and are looking for an alternative to this social custom.

    It's also an open-minded look at why the custom began in the first place, because some people like to think about these things.

    Before ranting to me about not pushing my beliefs on others, please take the time to look at my blog and find out my actual thoughts on the subject, instead of making assumptions based on your personal definition of atheism. I suggest reading About This Site and Myths About Atheism.

    For the record, I'm not offended when I sneeze and someone says "God bless you." I appreciate the good intentions. However, I am offended when I politely say "gesundheit" only to have the sneezer rudely read me the riot act for not blessing them. (Which has happened on occasion.)

    1. Great post! As a child in the midwest I always said "Gazoomtight!", which as an adult I realized was "Gesundheit" =)

      Now in my Chinese&American workplace, my Chinese coworkers are very vigilant when an American sneezes-- one or two "Bless you!" accompany every sneeze.

      For these 'blessers' it's a way of demonstrating cultural proficiency and their understanding of American culture. (I've noticed that the other Chinese employees, who have spent less time in the US, look around confused when folks suddenly declare 'bless you!'. Understandably so.)

      I'm a "Gazoomtight!" gal myself so I'll try to introduce that to my co-workers too :)

  7. I have always said, "Excuse me" after I sneeze. I don't respond to the blessings either positively or negatively. When someone else sneezes, I might ask if they are ok. Especially, if they sneezed multiple times.

    This is a topic that I've thought about and discussed. It's a little thing, but like you said, some people think about these things.

  8. "Gesundheit!" works pretty well: "Health!" Who could argue with that?

  9. i think everyone should chill. saying Gesundheit and Salute in those countries when someone sneezes is actually God bless you no one in those countries actually says to your health when someone sneezes BUT none of this actually would matter if y'all just took a ChIlL pIlL and stopped worrying about what people say when you sneeze? jiminy christmas y'all are turning atheism into a religion. barf city!

    1. Foks are just trying to practice politeness here.

      If you would like people to "chill," and good way to achieve that result is to respect and accept their opinions, even though they may not be the same as yours. At a bare minimum, you could refrain from openly insulting them.

      Somebody above posted this link for another commenter and I think it might help you as well: http://www.wikihow.com/Be-Polite

  10. I like to offer Gesundheit. It took months of practice to stop saying Bless You, and I feel compelled to keep responding somehow.

    ...but I am a fairly fervent atheist. I do not go out of my way to smack at people's religions, but I tend to respond Tit for Tat when religion is trumpeted for just about anything.

    So I offer a polite, often mysterious, "No thank you" after a God Bless You or Bless You.

  11. your comment reminds me of a story my aunt told. my aunt is a passionate christian woman but is a little misguided at times, bless her heart.

    she lives in a rural area where everyone knows everyone else. she went on a road trip and stopped in an unknown city. while in line at a grocery there was a woman wearing a headscarf. the muslim woman sneezes and my aunt said bless you. the muslim lady looked at my aunt then looked away as if nothing happened. my aunt gets really passionate with this story. for her, the woman was anti-christian because she didn't respond or say thank you. but reading your comments i think the headscarf woman didn't know what to do or didn't normally meet people who said bless you. so i think people shouldn't react so quickly. my aunt is a good woman but sometimes she thinks people are anti-christian when they're not.

  12. Even secular France has representations of Père Noël, but few are willing to openly display personal religious preferences. The idea is, that when you separate yourself this way, you have made yourself an outsider to civic life...your loyalties are not to society, but to the church.

  13. I hate when people say "Bless You" to me when I sneeze or say goodbye. It's so fucking annoying. I don't say anything, but I just don't mind being a prick every once and a while ;) I think it would be worse if I said something else because I wouldn't be able to hide the sarcasm ;) Better silent than sorry, in my case ;) Really, I don't think people GeNeRaLLy care that much, especially if there are others around and at least some one out of the group says it. But if they really care that much, I would think they need to "Get A Life".

  14. In Sweden we say "prosit" which in english sounds different but prusit in english sounds closer to the actual sounding in swedish.
    Prosit is also used in german I think when drinking, unsure of the actual meaning and use of in german...

  15. Here are some other things you can say after someone sneezes: https://vine.co/v/MzX7mOAgbT5

  16. I can't speak on the Italian phrase but the Spanish phrase is "Salud" or "Su Salud" meaning "Health" or "to your health" respectively.

  17. Thank you for writing about this topic. My boyfriend is Atheist and I was raised Christian. We have been together for 4 years and have a 7 month old child. I have always said "Bless you" without giving it a second thought. I never felt like I was actually putting a blessing upon him, it's just what I have always said when someone sneezes. Well, this morning he sneezed and like always, I said "bless you". He flipped out and said not to use those words around his daughter and to never teach her to say those words. In 4 plus years he has never said a word and today it started a massive argument. I feel strange saying gasundheit, so I've been trying to think of some other thing to say. Staying quiet feels weird. I like "salute!" Hadn't thought of that, so thank you :)

  18. We just say 'May the Force be with you'...easy.