The Disturbing Science Of Holding In Pee, Farts, And Sneezes

It might be best to let your farts fly free.

Originally Published: 
A man in a dark bathroom sits hunched over on the toilet.
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For many of us, life has become increasingly busy and crowded. But our bodies don’t care if we’re in a packed elevator or in the middle of an important job interview. Sometimes you just have to fart. Or sneeze. Or pee when you’re standing in a long line. But can holding in pee be dangerous? Is it bad to hold in a sneeze? And can holding a fart…kill you?

Out of politeness, we may feel pressure to hold in our gasses and liquids — but this can have uncomfortable, and even harmful, consequences.

Is It Bad to Hold in a Sneeze?

Especially since COVID came on the scene, it can feel awkward to sneeze in a crowded place. Holding it in may feel like the polite thing to do. But a sneeze is a powerful force, exiting the body at up to 100 feet per second, and trying to stifle a sneeze by closing your mouth and nose can increase pressure in the airway by more than 20 times compared to a normal sneeze.

Most of the time our bodies are capable of dealing with this pressure. But on rare occasions, holding in a sneeze can have unpleasant outcomes. “Because the back of the nose is connected to eustachian tubes that open up into the middle ear, you can cause middle ear damage. There are cases of ruptured eardrums in people who have held a sneeze,” says Michael Benninger, M.D., Chair of the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. And if you hold in a sneeze when you’re sick, it can actually force more virus or bacteria into the sinus cavity, potentially resulting in a sinus infection, he says.

Sometimes the consequences are even more severe. In one instance, a man who stifled a sneeze ended up in the emergency room after he developed throat pain and hoarseness and started spitting up blood. Doctors diagnosed him with a laryngeal fracture — a potentially dangerous rupture of the voice box, which is important for speech and for keeping food out of the lungs. He was hospitalized for three days.

In another case, a man was hospitalized for two days after a blocked sneeze caused him to develop pneumomediastinum, a condition in which air accumulates in the space between the lungs, more commonly seen after traumatic events like car crashes.

The majority of case studies that report sneeze-related injuries have occurred in men. Researchers speculate that this may be because men generally have larger lung volumes, and this can lead to greater airway pressures during sneezing.

What Happens When You Hold In a Fart?

Whether there are side effects of holding in a fart is somewhat less clear. In the 1970s, researchers hypothesized that holding in farts could lead to diverticulitis, a condition in which small pouches form in the intestines, which then become infected or inflamed. However, this hypothesis has yet to be conclusively proven.

Although the long-term effects of stopping your toots are uncertain, short-term discomfort is highly likely. You have probably experienced this discomfort first-hand, but it’s also been scientifically proven. In a 2001 study, scientists infused gas into volunteers’ small intestines and asked them not to fart. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many volunteers reported sensations of pressure, bloating, and cramping.

The human body can produce a lot of farts in a day — one study found that healthy people produced between two to six cups of farts in 24 hours (although to be fair, the researchers had fed them beans).

If it helps you feel more comfortable letting your farts fly free, flatulence is probably not as germ-spreading as sneezes, at least if you’re wearing pants. In 2001, a scientist farted onto two petri dishes — first while wearing pants, and then bare-bummed. The second petri dish grew colonies of bacteria, of types found in the gut and on the skin. But the first petri dish remained relatively bacteria-free, suggesting that farting with pants on is probably acceptable, at least in terms of bacteria.

What Happens If You Hold In Your Pee?

Holding in pee may lead to short-term discomfort and possible long-term complications. Although there have been few studies, experts say that holding in pee for a long time allows any bacteria in the urinary tract to multiply, potentially leading to a symptomatic urinary tract infection.

Incomplete emptying of the bladder can also lead to bladder stones, clumps of minerals that can accumulate in the bladder, causing pain and bleeding. However, this generally occurs from nerve damage or an enlarged prostate, rather than intentionally holding it in.

Spontaneous bladder ruptures can also (very rarely) occur, although again this is generally not from intentionally holding it in, but rather from physiological problems such as urinary tract blockages or infections

Overall, holding in your sneezes, farts, or pee isn’t horrifically dangerous — you’re not taking base-jumping levels of risk if you hold in a fart on a crowded bus — but in most cases, it’s probably best to let it out. Just remember: Whoever smelt it, dealt it.

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