Yawning is an automatic body response to tiredness or stress. Less commonly, excessive yawning can also be a sign of an underlying health condition.
In this article, we look at the possible causes of excessive yawning and discuss when to see a doctor.
Yawning is usually a bodily response to tiredness. People also yawn when they see others yawn, or even when they read about yawning, as a form of empathy.
Excessive, very frequent yawning can signal extended periods of tiredness, such as that which occurs in insomnia and depression, side effects of medication, or certain medical conditions.
Depending on the cause, excessive yawning may occur alongside other symptoms, such as feeling very tired, having difficulty concentrating, or experiencing breathing difficulties.
The following factors can cause excessive yawning:
A common reason for excessive yawning is tiredness or fatigue. If people are having difficulty getting enough sleep, they may find themselves yawning a lot more than usual.
If people experience constant fatigue or sleepiness during the day, or if they have a sleep disorder, they should see their doctor for advice.
A person may not realize that they have sleep problems. For example, a person who has obstructive sleep apnea may not have easily recognizable waking symptoms, but it affects the quality of their sleep and can leave the person feeling tired throughout the day.
Other symptoms that suggest a sleep problem may be causing excessive yawning can include:
- difficulty concentrating
- slower reflexes or responses
- feeling irritable
- feeling unmotivated
- weak or aching muscles
Anxiety is a common trigger for yawning. Anxiety affects the heart, respiratory system, and energy levels. These can all cause breathlessness, yawning, and feelings of stress.
If a person experiences a lot of anxiety, they may find themselves yawning more often than other people, or more often than when they are not feeling as anxious.
Anxiety-related yawning often gets worse when a person feels more anxious, but it can also arise with no obvious trigger.
People may experience excessive yawning if they take certain medications. Fatigue or drowsiness is a common side effect of many over-the-counter and prescription drugs.
Medications that could cause excessive yawning include:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and other antidepressants
- some pain relief medications
Depression can cause or exacerbate yawning due to either side effects of antidepressants or fatigue that comes with depression.
If a person with depression is finding themselves yawning frequently, or more than usual, they can discuss this with their doctor, who may then be able to change medication doses or check for any other causes.
Excessive yawning can be related to the vagus nerve, which runs from the bottom of the brain down to the heart and stomach.
In some cases, excessive yawning may indicate bleeding around the heart or even a heart attack.
Other symptoms that may indicate a heart problem include:
- pain in the chest
- shortness of breath
- pain in the upper body
If people notice any of these signs, they should seek medical attention immediately.
People who have had a stroke may yawn excessively. Doctors believe that this is because yawning may help regulate and reduce the brain and body’s core temperature after brain injury from a stroke.
Some research suggests that the process of yawning involves the brain stem, the base area of the brain that connects to the spinal cord. Excessive yawning may happen before or after a stroke.
People can use the acronym F.A.S.T to spot symptoms of a stroke:
- Face: drooping lower face, numbness, or unable to smile on one side
- Arm: weakness in an arm, or unable to keep an arm raised
- Speech: difficulty speaking, or slurred speech
- Time to call 911: if people notice these symptoms, they should seek medical attention immediately
People with epilepsy may yawn excessively, such as before, during, or after seizures that begin in the temporal lobe. This is called temporal lobe epilepsy.
People with epilepsy may also experience excessive yawning due to the fatigue that epilepsy can cause.
People with multiple sclerosis (MS) may experience excessive yawning due to MS-related fatigue, or to address the disrupted temperature regulation caused by MS. Excessive yawning may also arise with other central nervous system disorders.
Yawning is also linked with elevated cortisol, which is a stress hormone in the body. This may be why yawning is related to anxiety and fatigue, both of which place the body under stress.
One study suggests that recognizing abnormal rises in cortisol might help detect some neurological conditions, such as MS and early-onset dementia.
The main symptoms of MS include:
- extreme fatigue or exhaustion
- numbness or tingling in the body, face, arms, or legs
- problems with vision
- difficulty walking or balancing
People may yawn excessively during the last stages of liver failure. Scientists believe that this is due to the fatigue that liver failure causes.
Other symptoms of liver failure include:
- loss of appetite
- feeling extremely sleepy in the daytime
- edema in the hands or feet and excess fluid collecting inside the abdomen
In rare cases, excessive yawning can be a symptom of a frontal lobe or brain stem tumor.
Other symptoms that may signal a brain tumor include:
- changes in personality
- tingling, weakness, or stiffness on one side of the body
- memory loss
- problems with vision
If a person finds themselves yawning excessively, they should see their doctor to find out what could be causing it.
The treatments will depend on the cause of the yawning, and may include the following:
- If yawning is due to a sleep problem, a person can try to improve their sleep cycle or speak to a doctor about sleep treatments.
- If yawning is a side effect of medication, a doctor may be able to prescribe a lower dose or a change of medication.
- If yawning is a sign of an underlying health condition, a doctor will work with the person to provide specific treatment to manage the condition.
A doctor may ask people about their sleep habits and how physically and mentally tired they feel on a regular basis.
They may order an electroencephalogram (EEG) to rule out brain abnormalities such as a seizure disorder. An EEG measures brainwave activity using electrodes on the scalp.
To check for any heart problems, a doctor may use a chest X-ray or an MRI scan to rule out heart abnormalities. An MRI scan can show whether someone has had damage to the heart tissue and surrounding areas.
Yawning is a normal automatic response to tiredness and anxiety. Excessive yawning can arise from extreme tiredness, a side effect of medications, or an underlying health condition.
If a person find themselves yawning frequently, or more than they would usually for no known reason, they should see their doctor to find out what could be causing it.
If they notice any other symptoms that could indicate a serious health condition, they should seek medical help immediately.