Mouth Breathing vs. Nose Breathing | Does It Really Matter?

women breathing through nose with blue background

Chances are, you’ve probably heard the term “mouth breather” used more than once. Maybe it was somebody poking fun as part of a television skit, or perhaps it was how you described an old schoolyard bully. But mouth breathing doesn’t inherently equate to somebody being dumb or mean. It’s an actual physical symptom of a breathing disorder, and it can impact you in a variety of different ways. Mouth breathing may not seem like a really big concern, but it should be. Especially if you want to keep your teeth healthy! That’s right - mouth breathing is BAD for teeth!

Is Mouth Breathing A Bad Thing?

Typically, your mouth needs plenty of saliva to stay healthy. An adequate saliva flow helps to limit the accumulation of bacteria, dry tissues, and even odors. When someone is always breathing through their mouth instead of their nose—say for the occasional hard workout at the gym—it dries out your saliva quicker than it can replenish itself.[1]

The more you breathe out your mouth, the drier your mouth becomes. And the drier your mouth is, the higher your chances are for:

In fact, in dentistry, we purposely try to treat and manage dry mouth, because it’s that bad for your tooth enamel. Without saliva coating your teeth throughout the day, your bacterial and acid levels skyrocket. Chronic mouth breathing can—and almost always will—lead to an uptick in dental diseases. You could almost equate mouth breathing to being as bad on your teeth and gums as what we see with cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy. It’s a huge factor in your dental wellness, not just a minor knit-picky issue.

Nasal Breathing For The Win? 

In almost all circumstances, you want to be breathing out of your nose instead of your mouth. Obviously, there will always be some exceptions to the rule. But if you’re a mouth breather during everyday activities or when you’re sleeping at night, consider this your red flag that something is wrong.[2]

Ideally, you should have clear nasal passages that allow you to intake enough oxygen through your nose while you’re sleeping, exercising, and just going about your day.

If you catch yourself with your mouth open during the day—you guessed it, mouth breathing—try to make a conscious effort to close your lips together and try breathing through the nose. If you can’t, ask yourself why you breathe through your mouth (more on that in a moment.)

Nose breathing allows airflow to zip straight past your mouth and go in through your nasal sinuses then upper airway. That way you’re not constantly drying out your teeth and gums, allowing bacteria to breed.

How To Tell If I'm A Mouth Breather vs. Nose Breather? 

How can you tell if you’re a mouth breather without somebody telling you that you are? Ask yourself:

  • Do you notice that your lips are always dry and chapped?
  • Do you frequently experience dry mouth or “xerostomia” symptoms?
  • Are your gums, especially around your front teeth, always red, irritated, or inflamed?
  • Do you tend to struggle with bad breath?
  • Does your mouth feel sticky or is it ever hard to swallow?
  • Do you wake up in the morning with a “cotton mouth”?
  • When you exercise, are you breathing in through your mouth, or in through your nose? (Breathing out of your mouth during exercise is usually completely normal!)
  • Do you catch yourself with your mouth open for no reason?
  • Have family members or roommates ever mentioned you sleeping with your mouth wide open?

Why Do I Mouth Breathe?

Typically, most people mouth breathe because of some type of nasal or sinus blockage. This makes breathing through the nose impossible. Perhaps they’re having an allergy flare-up because of seasonal changes, or they have a full-blown sinus infection and all of the drainage that goes with it.

At other times, mouth breathing occurs when we sleep. Perhaps our jaw drops back or we have some type of a clinical sleeping disorder.

Mouth breathing can also be attributed to oral and facial skeletal development. For example, if the lower jaw is too small and oral tissues block the upper airway, those individuals might be inclined to mouth breathe more often because of the way everything fits together. Myofunctional therapy is a rapidly growing area in dentistry that actually addresses oral function and breathing patterns. People, kids especially, who mouth breathe frequently could benefit from seeing a myofunctional therapist to help improve their breathing as well as other things like jaw function, headaches, etc.

Risks Of Mouth Breathing 

What are some of the other health conditions that someone might experience if they’re a mouth breather? Or are there risk factors that can make someone more prone to mouth breathing?

If you’re experiencing any of these situations or find that several of the following criteria apply to you personally, you might be more prone to mouth breathing than others around you:

  • A small jaw
  • ADD, ADHD, or difficulty concentrating
  • Swollen or red gums
  • Recurring tooth decay
  • Young children: bed wetting
  • Snoring
  • Hay fever, sinusitis, seasonal allergies
  • Deviated septum
  • Premature tooth loss
  • Prolonged thumb/finger/pacifier habit as a child
  • Enlarged tongue
  • A severe open bite, overjet, or overbite

Mouth breathing tends to be common in young children who have orofacial growth concerns. So, if you notice your child having difficulty concentrating or struggling with their grades in school, it might also tie back to their respiratory health and breathing patterns.

Sometimes bad habits are to blame. If issues like blocked sinuses are addressed but an individual continues to breathe through their mouth instead of “training” themselves to breathe through their nose and have good mouth “posture”, their mouth breathing can last throughout their lifetime.

Mouth Breathing And Dry Mouth

Even though breathing through your mouth all of the time is a little unattractive, there are also some health issues that result from it. In this case, dental health issues. The more you breathe through your mouth, the drier it is. And it’s proven that people with dry mouth are statistically more at risk for cavities. It’s just the way it works. Without saliva or enough of it, your mouth can’t “wash” or “rinse” your teeth off throughout the day.

A classic example is seeing individuals with xerostomia (dry mouth) because of cancer treatments. When the saliva glands shut down during cancer treatment, their mouths are dryer and their cavity rates skyrocket. If you’re mouth breathing, you’re essentially creating some of the very same conditions inside of your mouth and making yourself more likely to develop cavities. Who would have thought by nasal breathing, you could prevent cavities! 

How to Prevent Mouth Breathing

There are a few different ways you can prevent mouth breathing and manage the side effects that come from it.

First off, make sure you’re using fluoride every day. The fluoride will help remineralize any dry, weak enamel that’s starting to develop cavities.

Second, practice proper breathing with your mouth closed. If your nasal passages are blocked, it’s worthwhile to start treating them with medication or the help of your physician.

Third and probably most importantly, watch your child when they’re young. Are they using a pacifier or sucking their thumb past 1 or 2 years of age? Are they breathing through their mouth or wetting the bed as they get older? Do they tend to have problems with attention or school work? You might want to have your dentist or a myofunctional therapist assess their oral anatomy and bone development, to make sure there’s optimal airflow whenever their mouth is closed. That way growth modification/orthognathic correction can be used (preventing the need for surgery later on.)

How to Treat Mouth Breathing

The “quickest” way to treat mouth breathing is to start training yourself to breathe through your nose. That might also mean you need to start taking a decongestant or allergy medication to help clear up any nasal inflammation. From there, you’ll want to remind yourself frequently to consciously try to close your mouth and breathe through your nose instead. Some people will go as far as to place a small strip of tape over their own mouth so that they feel it tugging if they start to drop their jaw open. Of course, that only works if you’re not around a lot of other people during the day![3]

Nasal Breathing Training During Daytime

Daytime mouth breathing is almost always going to be habitual or because of difficulty breathing through your nose. So, trying to be more aware of your mouth posture and how air flows through your nasal passages (checking yourself for congestion) are the two most important things to do. The tape trick doesn’t hurt to try either, but obviously, you don’t want to use that on someone other than yourself, because then you’re going to have some bigger problems on your hands. When breathing through the nose, make sure your tongue is positioned correctly. This will help your mouth rest in the ideal position without blocking the back of your throat. Technically, the front and middle portion of your tongue should be resting somewhere in the roof of your mouth and not pressing against your front teeth.

Nasal Breathing Training During Sleep

Trying to train yourself to breathe through your nose while you’re sleeping can be a little more difficult. You might actually need a mouthpiece or oral appliance made by your dentist to help you correctly position your mandible (lower jaw) while you’re sleeping. If you have some type of undiagnosed sleeping disorder, you might even need a take-home sleep study to find out if you have breathing irregularities that are causing you to keep your mouth open. Talk to a sleep dentist, sleep physician, or pulmonologist for more nighttime breathing advice.[4]

Talk To A Dentist or Physician 

If you have trouble breathing through your nose or are always battling sinus infections, it’s great to start with a trip to your ENT or PCP to discuss what’s causing it. Maybe you need to have your adenoids taken out or have a deviated septum.

On the other hand, you’re also (hopefully) seeing your dentist for checkups every six months. It’s worthwhile to go ahead and mention your mouth breathing habit during your exam. Your dentist can easily assess your oral anatomy and parts of your airway to determine if there’s a specific factor that’s contributing to your breathing irregularity. Such as tongue positioning.

Mouth Breather vs Nose Breather

Mouth breathing isn’t normal, even when you exercise. It can be because of anatomical or developmental issues, where tissues physically block airflow and limit oxygen intake. The problem is that not only is mouth breathing a bad habit “socially” speaking, but it also puts you at a really high risk of getting tooth decay. Review the list of mouth breathing causes and risks to see if you can figure out what might be to blame. Then plan a visit with your dentist and/or ENT to decide what your next steps need to be!

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