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ANSWER: Why do some people sneeze so much more violently than others?

ANSWER: Everyone has a signature sneeze. A person who sneezes violently doesn't typically have, in his or her repertoire, a modest, low-voltage sneeze. Likewise, someone who issues a polite "ca-choo" is unlikely to erupt, under any circumstances, in a floorboard-shaking, china-cabinet-rattling, vermin-frightening ARRR-FGGGNN-EWGBRGEEWW! type of sneeze.So a sneeze is like a handshake, something that's fairly consistent from day to day for any given person and yet highly variable throughout the general population. And, as with our handshake, we have limited knowledge of how others perceive it; for all you know, when other people refer to you they say, "You know - the one with the posthumous handshake and the hydrogen bomb sneeze."

Why do sneezes vary so much?

No one knows. Robert Naclerio, associate professor of otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins University, says there are two obstacles to finding an answer:

First, sneezes are complex, multistep physical reactions, and no one has isolated any particular step that corresponds to the violence of the sneeze. For example, we know that a person with hay fever will sneeze when exposed to pollen. But the vehemence of the sneeze doesn't correlate with the quantity of pollen in the air, nor the number of pollen-detecting antibodies in the nose, nor the amount of the chemical histamine secreted by cells when alerted to the presence of pollen by the antibodies.

Secondly, and probably more importantly, there's no unit of sneeze measurement.

"We don't have any objective measures other than counting sneezes," says Philip Fireman, director of the Asthma and Allergic Disease Center at the University of Pittsburgh.

"There's not, like, a Richter scale of sneezing," says Naclerio.

A final note: You've probablynever seen anyone sneeze on film or videotape. There's a good reason for it: People can't. Naclerio has put his sneeze-inducing chemicals into the noses of patients, turned on a camera, and waited, to no avail. It seems that adrenaline suppresses a sneeze. This is why you can't sneeze and scream in terror at the same time.

QUESTION: Why do you never see a woman with a cleft chin?

ANSWER: The real question is: How do men shave inside that notch? Is there a special device they are forced to use that's a combination of a shaver and tweezers? Do they soak their chins in Nair?

We do know that there are two kinds of cleft chins: Dots and creases. Kirk Douglas has the classic cleft chin, and that's the dot style. In essence he has a circular pad of flesh with a dimple in the center, as though punched by a pencil.

The next thing you need to know is that the clefts don't go down into the bone. They are limited to the soft tissues. Kirk Douglas doesn't have a cleft jaw.

So why don't women have clefts? They do, actually. It's not very common. Ira D. Papel, a facial plastic surgeon in Baltimore, estimates that 95 percent of cleft chins are on men. "Women's faces tend to be smaller, slightly more rounded, and have less angular features," he said. He's noticed that clefts are associated with big chins, a male characteristic. Basically, women tend not to have cleft chins for the same reason that they tend not to have a lot of facial hair - the chromosomes ensure that the sexes don't look alike.

That said, a cleft chin on a woman is considered attractive. "There have been women who have actually come in and asked for one created, and there is an operation to do it," Papel said. But the fake clefts are "mostly a West Coast thing."

The Mailbag:

We recently said that rats can't come up from the sewer and pop out of your toilet. But Laura B., of Washington, D.C., informs us that she found a rat in her toilet not once but twice last year. "It was a big rat. A big rat. It was wet and it was trying to get out," she said.

And Phillip A., of Richmond, Va., told us his wife found a rat in the toilet recently, abruptly ending what was to have been a potty training session for their 2-year-old daughter.

We will spare you further details of this situation - suffice it to say that this reader dealt with the matter with massive amounts of bug spray and a barbecue fork - but we will point out that in each case there is no firm evidence that the rat came up from the sewer. More likely the rat was in the house, and was thirsty. Richard Kramer, research director for National Pest Control Association, says, "A rat can lift the lid and get inside the toilet."

In an old part of a city, such as downtown Richmond, there may be a slightly higher chance that a home's plumbing is tied into an old, beaten-up, rat-infested sewer system, but in general there are no rats in sewers because the sewers are sealed tight.

"I won't say it's impossible for them to come up through the sewer, but it's not a likely thing to happen," said our expert.

So calm down. Take a deep breath. No rats are going to come out of the toilet.

They already live in the house.