The eccentric lurgy-loather smacked one woman on the head after she sneezed in the middle of Carlisle last week. The same middle-aged man is then believed to have assaulted a frail 82-year-old woman who suffered a bout of the sniffles the following day.

The case is bugging Cumbria Police detectives who insist the incidents are not to be sneezed at. The culprit is described as being in his mid to late 50s and wearing a tweed jacket – and the unhappy slapper now looks certain to catch a cold if anyone coughs on him.

Sgt Gill Cherry – quoted in the Daily Mirror – said: “We are treating these two reported incidents as linked, and are appealing to the local community to help trace the man responsible. It is very unusual behaviour, and will have left his victims feeling confused and upset.”

The assaults have put wary shoppers on their guard in Carlisle town centre. Trainee shop assistant Gemma Prosser, 19, told the Mirror: “We heard as it happened in the town centre and at first we just thought it was a bit weird. When you think about it, it is really awful because anyone can sneeze at any time and it’s not your fault.”

Dental receptionist Nicola Dawson, 48, said: “I have come here shopping on my day off and actually have a cold. If anyone smacked me for sneezing I would smack them back.”