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Video: 12-year-old girl can’t stop sneezing

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    >>> this.

    >>> back now at 7:43 with a medical mystery. 12-year-old lauren johnson can't stop sneezing. she does it on average about a dozen times a minute, and no doctor has been able to explain why as of yet. we're going to speak to her exclusively in a moment, along with her mother. but first, nbc 's ron mott has her story.

    >> reporter: she just might be the most blessed person in america. or perplexed. 12-year-old lauren johnson , you see, has a rather bad case of the ah-choos, a volcano of sneezing numbering thousands of eruptions a kay.

    >> i can't stop sneezing. it's about -- it goes off about eight to nine times a minute.

    >> reporter: and showing no signs of stopping any time soon, coming literally out of the blue, as in b-l-e-w.

    >> it was different, and i just kind of got along with it thinking that it wouldn't last this long, but it's been two weeks now, and it isn't stopped.

    >> reporter: might it be her beloved dog bo? the lush grass they play on? no one seems to know.

    >> everyone's baffled.

    >> reporter: her mother says medications and visits to doctors have done little to stop this sneezing stum per.

    >> nobody really knows how to treat it, what's going to work. and even in cases where it might have worked or turned the sneezing off for a while, a lot of times, it comes back again.

    >> reporter: desperate for answers, mom even sought hypnotists and psychotherapists.

    >> my place is just to help destress the family and guide them through the medical and mental health parts of this.

    >> reporter: still, the sneezing continues.

    >> i've had to have homework sent here and i've started having teachers being sent here to help me with it.

    >> reporter: all she wants, lauren says, is to get back to school and for the sneezing to end.

    >> it gets old after a while going to three or four doctors appointments a day, but whatever it takes to get me to stop sneezing.

    >> reporter: the only thing working so far, sleep. for "today," ron mott, nbc news, atlanta.

    >> well, lauren johnson and her mother lynn are here with us exclusively along with nbc 's chief medical editor dr. nancy snyderman . good morning to all of you.

    >> good morning.

    >> good morning.

    >> first of all, lauren , you don't seem to be in any kind of pain. does any other part of your body hurt or is it just the sneezing?

    >> no, just primarily the sneezing. i'll get maybe a raw nose from tissues, but that's mostly it.

    >> and this started, you had a head cold along with your sister -- let me see if i've got this right. you basically were sneezing then, but not so much. you went to a sleepover, you felt better to go to a sleepover, and when you came home, you came back sneezing. what did you notice that made you realize that something was really off, lynn ?

    >> after she had the cold and seemed to be feeling better for a day, you know, the sneeze with the cold was a normal productive sneeze. when she came back from having a sleepover, it became a rihythmic chronic sneeze. that's when we came to the doctor a few weeks ago.

    >> so something from five sneezes a minute to maybe more than that, ten, twenty sometimes?

    >> yes.

    >> and so, the average is, you know, you have an average of that, but it accumulates something like 10,000, 12,000 sneezes a day.

    >> every waking minute.

    >> this is miserable. yeah? would you say it's been pretty miserable?

    >> yeah.

    >> yeah? you've not been able to go to school.

    >> no. they say it's too disruptive in the classroom.

    >> and is there anything positive to sneezing more versus sneezing less?

    >> no.

    >> it just depends on what's happening? you can't control it by -- but you have been able to sleep, which is a godsend, right? you can get some rest? and what are the doctors telling you?

    >> they say that they have a couple ideas maybe, that it's an intractable psychogenic sneeze she can't control, but they can't find any stress or traumatic experiences in her life recently that would trigger that.

    >> sounds like there's worry that something might have happened to make you want to sneeze. is there anything that you can think of that happened --

    >> no.

    >> -- to you to make you emotional about something?

    >> nothing. school's been going great. everything's been going fine. i can't think of anything.

    >> you can't think of anything. nancy, you know, you -- this is a very rare thing.

    >> right.

    >> maybe 40 cases, i understand, maybe known? i mean, what do we know about this?

    >> well, i think we have to just sort of step back for a second. it's always very difficult when a family's brave enough to come on national television and sort of go through this. but if you peel back the layers of the onion and you watch lauren , she's sneezing through her mouth, not a really, as lynn said, not a real productive, sort of nasal sneeze, which raises the question -- and we talked off camera, so this won't be a surprise between the two of us -- that perhaps this is more of a tick. you have to think of things like tourette syndrome , there's things where people sort of make things up as a secondary gain, attention. unusual for something like this, because immune chizens syndrome is usualliby pain, chest pain and you want people to run tests on you, but children who can't stop -- and it's not that she has chosen not to stop. she can't. it is now an involuntary tick that has taken over her life. it does bring up the psychological aspects of how do you get to that, and there are extraordinary child development centers in the country. having exhausted neurologists and ear, nose and throat doctors and not found anything up in the nose, you have to then take the next step and say, okay, what is there going on that has a psychological basis that you can then zero in on and treat.

    >> but you know, it's also true that if there are only a very small number of cases, that maybe finding the doctor who treated that case may not be easy --

    >> annie, i don't think this is just a sneeze. so, once you say i don't think it's a classic sneeze, then you say what is it? classic sneeze, you sneeze, your eyes close and, you know, you have some spray out of your nose. this is more coming out of her mouth into her hand, and it's involuntary. you can tell there's a rhythmic aspect to it, and that brings up the idea of a tick.

    >> one of the reasons why you wanted to be on tv is because you hope that somebody who's watching might be able to help you, and you want them to help you because i understand you really like school and you miss your friends. is that right, lauren ?

    >> yeah.

    >> so, what do you have to say about that, about how much you want this to stop?

    >> it's been a long two weeks. i have seen my friends here and there, talked to them, but i haven't been to school, so i've had teachers come out and i've had to do the homework at home.

    >> one thing we should say, in all the hype and craziness of flu season, this is not contagious. her friends should come over to the house. she can travel everywhere. this is not, you know, sneezing everyone -- this is the time when this family needs support, and very important.

    >> very good point. very good point. well, lauren , you get to hear from someone who's listening, and dr. nancy, thank you, as always, for helping us. if you have a suggestion to help lauren stop sneezing, we'd love to hear from you. logon to our website, which is todayshow.com.

    >>> and still ahead, andre agassi 's interview about his autobiography.

    >>> ahead, andre agassi and his revealing, new memoir.

    >> plus, bon jovi rocks our plaza with the troops.

TODAY contributor
updated 11/11/2009 9:44:08 AM ET 2009-11-11T14:44:08

With metronomic regularity, the girl’s right arm rises to her face, her hand balled into a fist and partially covered by her sleeve. If Lauren Johnson is talking, she stops when her hand arrives at her nose. Then she sneezes. It’s not a big sneeze, but she has to stop to let it out. Then the hand drops and she resumes whatever she was doing. A few seconds later, the action is repeated.

Talk. Sneeze. Play. Sneeze. Sit still. Sneeze. Eat. Sneeze.

As many as 12 times a minute and 12,000 times a day, 12-year-old Lauren sneezes. And there’s nothing that six professionals, including doctors, a psychologist and a hypnotist, have been able to do to stop it.

“It gets old after a while,” said Lauren. Even that short sentence was bracketed by the sneezes that began on Nov. 1 and haven’t stopped since.

Chronic achoos
Desperate to find someone who can stop all the achoos, Lauren and her mother, Lynn Johnson, visited TODAY Wednesday in New York, where they talked about Lauren’s bizarre condition with Ann Curry and NBC’s chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman.

It began, Lynn Johnson said, when both Lauren and her 10-year-old sister came down with colds in mid-October. The colds ran their course in two weeks and included the expected sneezing — big, nasal, productive sneezes.

“After she had the cold, she seemed to be feeling better for a day,” Johnson said, so she let Lauren go to a friend’s house for a sleepover. She returned home on Nov. 1 — and life suddenly went into gesundheit mode.

“She came back from having the sleepover; it became a rhythmic, nonstop, chronic sneeze. That’s when we first really became alarmed,” Johnson said.

The constant sneezing was too disruptive to allow Lauren to go to school, so she started having homework sent home. After a while, teachers started coming over, too, to help. Lynn Johnson had to stop going to her part-time job at Ghirardelli Chocolate, and also had to suspend her work for a local nonprofit animal rescue group near their Chesapeake, Va., home. Even Lauren’s father, a nuclear engineer in the Navy, has had to take time off.

And through it all, Lauren’s tiny fist has kept rising to her nose to block her sneezes from five to 12 times a minute, all day long. Only when Lauren enters deep sleep does it stop.

“You must be miserable,” Curry said.

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“Yeah,” the slender, blue-eyed blonde replied. And then she sneezed.

A tic, not a sneeze?
Johnson said that after trying 11 different drugs to no effect, doctors suggested Lauren might have something called “intractable psychogenic sneeze” — a little-understood syndrome that has been identified in only about 40 other people around the world.

Video: Girl has been hiccuping for three weeks After listening to what Johnson had to say and watching Lauren sneeze again and again, Snyderman offered her opinion.

“If you peel back the layers of the onion and watch Lauren, she’s sneezing through her mouth — not a real, productive, nasal sneeze — which raises the question that perhaps this is more like a tic,” Snyderman said. “You have things like Tourette syndrome. There are things like Munchausen syndrome, where people sort of make things up to gain attention.”

Almost three years ago, Jennifer Mee, a Florida teenager, was on TODAY to talk about her uncontrollable hiccups. After suffering for months, Mee, who was 15 at the time, was eventually diagnosed with Tourette’s and went on medication to control the syndrome — and her hiccups.

Video: 'Hiccup girl' no more Snyderman emphasized that Lauren is not doing anything consciously to make herself sneeze, and she and her mother and other doctors agree that she is not the type to seek attention.

“It’s not that she has chosen not to stop — she can’t,” Snyderman said. “It’s an involuntary tic that has taken over her life. It does bring up the psychological aspect of how you get to that.

“I just don’t think this is a sneeze,” Snyderman added. “This is more coming out of her mouth into her hand, and it’s involuntary. And you can tell there’s a rhythmic aspect to it, and that brings up the idea of a tic.”

‘A long two weeks’
She suggested that the Johnsons look into some of the nation’s leading child development centers, where professionals can investigate the possible psychological aspects of Lauren’s sneezing, and offered to help them make connections.

Snyderman emphasized that Lauren’s sneezes are not caused by a pathogen and are not contagious.

“It’s been a long two weeks,” Lauren said before sneezing. “I have seen my friends here and there [sneeze] — talked to them. But I haven’t been to school [sneeze].”

At that point Lauren stopped talking. But the arm kept rising to her nose, and the sneezing went on.

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