Even people who don't believe in God and never go to church are likely to issue a blessing when someone sneezes.

In any room full of people you are likely to hear "God bless you," "Bless you" or "Gesundheit" following a sneeze. It has become so much a reflex reaction to a common bodily function that few people even know why they say these things, said Margaret Brady, associate chair of the English department at the University of Utah.Brady explained the folklore behind the sneeze at the recent Fife Folklore Conference on Folk Medicine at Utah State University.

Depending on your age and the region of the country you are from, you probably have a different explanation for the sneeze blessing. Among the most frequently repeated explanations are:

- Your heart momentarily stops when you sneeze, so you are in a sense near death.

- You are vulnerable to spirits entering your body when you sneeze.

- Your spirit actually comes out of your body momentarily when you sneeze and it could be snatched by the devil.

- During the time of the bubonic plague a sneeze was the first sign that you might be contracting the plague.

Brady said most people saying "bless you" don't really do so because they believe any of these explanations. Saying something after a sneeze is now more of a social courtesy - a way of acknowledging the person sneezing.

Even though she does folklore research, Brady said she found herself using the sneeze response without knowing why, "For years I used to think that `gesundheit' was German for God bless you,' but it turns out it means `to your health.' "