Well-meaning as the sentiment is, I cannot help feeling annnoyed by this tradition. I cringe when others say it, and I even catch myself saying it without thinking. I've never argued with anyone about it; after all, it seems like such a harmless habit and it is impolite not to say something. But why must it always be "Bless you?" I decided to examine what exactly bothers me about this custom.
I would first like to point out that the full expression is "May God bless you." This is troubling because I don't believe in God, at least not the one with the capital G. I don't rule out the possible existence of god-like beings, but so far I have yet to see conclusive evidence of any. If such beings do exist, I doubt that they are interested in what goes on in my sinuses. For me to accept God's blessing is hypocritical and for me to wish someone God's blessing is meaningless. God has done nothing for my health in the past -- medicine and common sense have. If God is so great then why am I sneezing at all? Perhaps God is in my nose, making me sneeze, flushing out the irritants, and sending goo all over my sleeve. The attempt to secularize this phrase by removing the word God is kind of silly. If not God, then who is doing the blessing?
This brings me to my next question: What does it mean to bless? From the Merriam-Webster online dictionary:
Etymology: Middle English, from Old English blEtsian, from blOd blood; from the use of blood in consecration
1 : to hallow or consecrate by religious rite or word
2 : to hallow with the sign of the cross
3 : to invoke divine care for
-- used in the phrase bless you to wish good health especially to one who has just sneezed
So, by saying "Bless you," one invokes the blood of Jesus to flow from heaven upon the sneezer. Consecration with the blood of God. Ew. Adding more bodily fluids to this already sticky situation does not seem wise.
What's so bad about sneezing? Your body is trying to rid itself of an irritant, and that's good. Granted, allergies are not fun and sometimes, as I frequently remind myself and others, your body lies to you. There are also all sorts of weird things that trigger sneezes without having anything to do with your nose. But generally, a random sneeze is not cause for alarm. It's a healthy response and a sign that your body's defenses are working. Personally, I like to sneeze. It feels good. Hey, everyone knows that a sneeze is an eighth of an orgasm (well, that's not actually true, see here). But seriously, in India, sneezing is a sign of good health, so much so that Indian scientists have called the condition of being unable to sneeze, "asneezia," which is now my new favorite word. Some people have taken the positive view on sneezing a step further as seen on this site, proving once again that there is a fetish for everything.
Finally, I must address the obvious question. What to say instead? "Gesundheit" is what I usually default to, which, as I just looked up, simply means "health." As in "Good health to you." In India, land of the celebrated sneeze, "Live well!" is the response. Responses run along these same lines throughout other parts of the world as well. Perhaps, a more practical approach could be to ask, "Are you okay?" One could even go so far as to offer a tissue. The point is to let the sneezer know that you noticed their sneeze and you hope it is just a healthy immune response and that they don't have something contagious. People appreciate the sympathy. On the other hand, I have a friend who says, "God damn you," but I'm not sure I'd recommend that.