When someone yawns repeatedly, it is often interpreted as being sleepy or bored. Yawning is the body’s way to respond to reduced levels of oxygen, which is directly related to energy levels. By yawning, the body takes in increased amounts of oxygen than normal breathing does and helps the person feel energized and awake. This often happens when one is tired or sleepy or sometimes plain bored and not interested in what is happening around them (discussion or activity). It is also a well-known fact that yawning is contagious, and when one person in a group yawns, other people do so too, often unintentionally. It is also believed that yawning cools the temperature of the brain.
A person is said to be excessively yawning if he/she is yawning more than once per minute. While often benign and not a serious condition, it can be an indication of underlying medical condition and so requires attention if it continues to be a regular problem. What is also important is to look for associated symptoms that may indicate an underlying problem. For instance, people with insomnia can be yawning in excess and also have sleep disturbances, reduced energy levels, lack of concentration and attention, etc.
Some of the medical conditions that could present with excessive yawning are discussed below.
- Sleep disturbances: With work hours stretching beyond the norm and screen-time increasing, most people’s sleep patterns have changed and there is no fixed sleep-wake cycle. This often causes daytime sleepiness, tiredness, difficulty focusing, and lack of attention. While this can be a temporary issue, it can become a chronic issue too. The person should be made to keep a sleep diary and correct the sleep timings.
- Depression and anxiety: Whether a person is anxious or depressed about something, the heart rate, breathing, and stress levels are altered. This keeps the person awake at night and also makes him/her yawn excessively during the day. Both anxiety and depression also do not let a person sleep normally, thereby further increasing the yawning. The medications used for treating these conditions also induce yawning.
- Heart problems: The vagus nerve runs from the base of the brain to the torso and further down, and if stimulated, this can cause excessive yawning. This condition is known as vasovagal reaction, where the nerve is hyperactive causing a drop in the heart rate and breathing. This, in turn, increases yawning in an effort to pump in more oxygen and increase these two parameters. Heart attacks also present with excessive yawning.
- Cool temperatures: When in a cold place, a person yawns in an effort to take in more oxygen and keep themselves warm.
- Seizures: Mild forms of seizure can present as sleepiness, as indicated by excessive yawning. Sometimes, the seizure may get self-arrested, and sometimes it may blow into a full-blown seizure.
Excessive yawning, though harmless, can sometimes be indicative of a more serious underlying condition. So, if a person is yawning excessively for a long time, it should not be ignored.