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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.