At first, I feel confused—sure, the show has its emotional moments, but it’s a comedy. What am I doing that makes her think I'm upset? And then I realize: She probably thinks I'm crying. “Oh yeah, I'm good!” I respond quickly. “My eyes water when I'm yawning.” While it’s the truth and I know she trusts me, I worry she thinks I'm lying to save face. After all, doesn’t it seem kind of random that yawning basically makes you cry?
If this has happened to you, rest assured that it’s not as weird (or worrisome) as it may sound. Basically, when your eyes scrunch up during a yawn, they push out tears. “[The] tightening of the facial muscles around the eyes when we yawn causes the pool of tears that normally coat our eyes (i.e. our tear film) to ‘overflow,’” explains Dagny Zhu, MD, a Harvard-trained specialist in cornea, cataract, and laser refractive surgery and a surgeon with Nvision Eye Centers. “Facial muscles also put pressure on the lacrimal gland, which ‘squeezes’ out tears.”
While the tearing doesn’t have a clear evolutionary purpose, Dr. Zhu did share an interesting scientific fact that could be behind this. “Some studies show yawning is a way for our brains to ‘cool off,’ which can be accomplished by [the] secretion of tears, similar to sweating,” she says.
Why it might not happen every time, or to every person
However, you may be reading this and thinking, “Why don't my eyes water when yawning?” or “This only happens to me on occasion—what does that mean?” A couple of fair questions! Personally, I've noticed the eye-watering is worse at certain times, and for seemingly no reason.
According to Dr. Zhu, there’s no definitive explanation, but she does have some theories. “Some people with autoimmune diseases have impaired tear production due to inflammatory damage causing dry eye,” she says. “Counterintuitively, other people with dry eye disease may actually tear more as a reflexive response: Because their eyes are at a constant state of dryness, their tear production is always in overdrive.”
For reference, the other signs of autoimmune diseases include things like fatigue, swollen glands, digestive issues, joint pain, and more. As far as dry eye disease, you may notice additional symptoms such as eye burning or itching, eye redness, sensitivity to light, feeling like something is stuck in your eye, and blurred vision. Several other causes of watery eyes that are unrelated to yawning, but potentially still at play, are allergies, seasonal changes, makeup, and problems with contact lenses.
In any case, it’s best to talk with a trusted health-care provider if you’re concerned that your eyes watering might be something more than an occasional thing. Otherwise, there’s not really a reason to worry, regardless of whether your eyes water (or not) mid-yawn.
Can you stop your eyes from watering when yawning?
While it’s not a problem, let’s face it: Eye-watering (and yawning) can be ill-timed, a little awkward, and annoying, even in the most comfortable of situations. Is there a way to prevent it? “There’s no real way to stop our eyes from tearing when yawning, but it’s generally a good thing to keep our eyes lubricated,” Dr. Zhu says. So, in most cases, I suppose it’s more a matter of reframing your perspective than fixing a physical issue.
However, if you experience excessive, constant tearing; eye burning; or other eye problems like the ones listed above, “it can be a sign of disease and should be evaluated by an ophthalmologist,” Dr. Zhu adds. In other words, keep an eye on it (pun fully intended) and you should be just fine.
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