We yawn for a variety of reasons. Have you found yourself yawning while trying to stay awake behind the wheel? Maybe you’ve yawned after seeing a friend yawn or even while reading this paragraph. Yawning is a natural involuntary response to feeling tired or bored. Yawns can also be “contagious.” We yawn when we see, hear, or even think about yawns.
However, if you find yourself constantly yawning, it may be a symptom of a sleep disorder or other medical concern. People who yawn excessively tend to have an underlying issue causing the yawns. Knowing the signs of excessive yawning can help you identify and treat the root cause.
What Is a Yawn?
A yawn is a natural reflex that all vertebrate animals experience, including birds, fish, reptiles, and mammals. Yawning is observed throughout almost all stages of life, from fetus to older age.
When you yawn, you open your mouth, deeply inhale through your mouth and nose, and exhale slowly. Sometimes you might stretch your arms and tilt your head back as you yawn. Typically, a yawn lasts between five and 10 seconds.
Why Do We Yawn?
Scientists have identified a number of possible reasons that we yawn:
- Sleepiness or Drowsiness: We commonly yawn when we’re drowsy or excessively sleepy. Yawning occurs both after waking up and before bedtime. Yawns are part of your body’s process of staying awake. The stretching you do when you yawn also helps prevent you from falling asleep.
- Boredom: Yawning is also commonly associated with boredom. If your environment isn’t stimulating, you’ll feel drowsy. A yawn may signal to others around us that we’re bored or tired.
- Regulating Brain Temperature: Your yawns might help cool down your overheating brain. In animal studies, the brain temperatures of rats and parakeets were cooler after yawning. One small human study found that people yawn significantly more in summer than in winter.
- Ear Pressure: If you’ve been on an airplane before, you may have experienced uncomfortable ear pressure due to a change in altitude. Although not a primary purpose of yawning, a yawn can relieve pressure in your ears.
- Empathy: Some researchers believe that yawns are part of an empathetic response. In human and animal studies, yawns from one animal have been shown to trigger yawns in other animals of the same species. However, research is limited, so the relationship between yawning and empathy requires further study.
Normal Yawning Vs. Excessive Yawning
On average, humans yawn five to 10 times a day. However, people who experience excessive yawning tend to yawn many more times each day. In some case studies, people who yawn excessively reported yawning up to 100 times in a day.
Excessive yawning is often associated with factors other than sleepiness or boredom, such as medication use. However, given that yawning is perceived as disrespectful in many cultures, constant yawning may negatively impact a person’s social life. Excessive yawning can also be a symptom of an underlying disorder.
Causes of Excessive Yawning
Excessive yawning causes include:
- Drowsiness or Excessive Sleepiness: Frequent yawning is often caused by sleep debt. Sleep debt, or the amount of sleep a person is deprived of over time, can lead to drowsiness or excessive sleepiness. Yawning and excessive sleepiness may be a symptom of other sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and sleep apnea.
- Side Effects of Medication: Several case studies have shown that alterations in medication can cause excessive yawning. Excessive yawning is a common side effect of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which are used to treat depression and anxiety disorders.
- Neurological Disorders: Many neurological disorders can increase yawning frequency. People who suffer from migraines, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy, stroke, and head trauma may feel a temporary relief of their symptoms when they yawn.
Diagnosing Excessive Yawning
To diagnose excessive yawning, your doctor needs to eliminate possible sleep habits or disorders causing the yawning. If necessary, your doctor may have you take a diagnostic test called an electroencephalography (EEG). An EEG measures brain waves, or the electric activity in your brain. An EEG can help your doctor diagnose neurological disorders that may be triggering your excessive yawning.
Treatments for Excessive Yawning
Treatment for excessive yawning requires identifying the cause of the yawning. When the underlying cause is treated, the symptom of excessive yawning goes away. For example, when patients reduced or stopped the use of an SSRI, their excessive yawning lessened or went away entirely.
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If you feel that you’re experiencing excessive yawning, talk to your doctor. Keep track of other symptoms you experience in addition to the yawning, such as drowsiness or fatigue. Share these with your doctor, so that they have a better understanding of your current health. Together, you and your doctor can determine the cause of your excessive yawning and develop a treatment plan.
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