Ask Dr. Nandi: Why is yawning so contagious?

Posted at 4:44 PM, Jun 09, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-09 16:44:17-04

If someone near you yawns, you can’t help but yawn too. Yawning is a common behavior but why is it so contagious?

Studies have looked at yawns as an unconscious sign of empathy. If you’re an empathetic person, you may be more tuned into other’s emotions and therefore mimic a yawn. 

One small study found children did not start contagious yawning until around four years of age, the time when empathy starts developing. It also could be your brain is naturally hardwired for yawning.  

Research shows the younger you are, the more likely you’ll be triggered by others who yawn. 328 participants watched a 3-minute video of people yawning. Those under the age of 25 contagiously yawned 82% of the time.  The 25 to 49 age group contagiously yawned 60% of the time. And the 50 and over age group contagiously yawned 41% of the time.

Scientists used to believe that all yawning was a sign of sleepiness, but new research indicates contagious yawning is more about your personality. Regardless, many people still associate any yawns with tiredness or boredom. And there are situations when you may need to stifle them, so here are my prescriptions.

Partha’s RX

  1. Take deep breaths through your nose.   One study reported this helped to decrease contagious yawning.
  2. Drink cool beverages like ice water or eat a cold snack like carrots or fruit.  Cooling the body may help to suppress a yawn.
  3. Get up and move. Sitting all day can increase feelings of fatigue.
  4. Avoid sugary foods. They make your body tired and more susceptible to yawning.

There are medical problems associated with too much yawning. You could have sleep apnea, or disorders of the brain and nervous system like stroke, multiple sclerosis, epilepsy and brain tumors.

Please talk to your doctor if you feel you’re yawning more than usual or if it’s interfering with your day-to-day activities.