Most people don't often think about their breathing. More importantly, most do not know that the best way to breathe is through your nose, not your mouth, and that mouth breathing can lead to problems in the mouth and the airways.
Your mouth was made for eating, not breathing. Your nose and sinuses are made for breathing, and "pretreat" the air you breathe as it comes into your body. It does this by warming and adding water to the air, and by catching dust, pollen and other small things in the cilia, or tiny hairs, lining your nose. When you breathe through the smaller airways of the nose, it can even change how stretchy the lungs are. The nerves in your nose also sense everything about your breathing, sending messages to the brain to help control it. Mouth breathing has also been linked with poor posture. If you are breathing through your mouth during the day, you are probably also doing so at night, which can make your body drier than it should be (dehydrated), and lead to snoring and sleep apnea (when breathing stops for a short time, and oxygenation levels drop). Dehydration causes your airways to tighten and makes nose breathing even harder, creating a vicious cycle of more mouth breathing. One of the main reasons people mouth breathe is a stuffy or runny nose, which can make sleeping difficult, making you tired and moody, and also leading to snoring and sleep apnea.
Mouth breathing can also affect asthma. People with asthma may tend to switch to mouth breathing, which may lead to asthma onset and may trigger asthma symptoms, even serious ones, in some. For exercise-induced asthma (asthma that is triggered by activity/exercise) one study of people with asthma showed that most breathed with their mouths open when told to breathe "naturally." When they were told to breathe only through their nose during the exercise, asthma symptoms went almost completely away. When told to breathe only through the mouth during exercise, spirometry and other breathing tests showed that the airways got tighter.
In addition to asthma, mouth breathing can lead to other health problems, like abnormal development of the face. Children who breathe through their mouths tend to grow longer faces with a flatter profile, and have a "gummy" smile and/or crooked teeth. Trouble focusing, allergies, poor sports performance and ADHD have also been linked with mouth breathing, snoring and sleep apnea.
To keep your child from having problems from mouth breathing, breastfeeding and giving older babies foods in their natural form (like a stick of cooked carrot) instead of pureed food can help them grow stronger face muscles. Use an inverted sippy cup instead of the kind with the spout, and move to a regular cup as soon as possible. For children who are showing problems from mouth breathing, a dentist trained in Orthotropics® can help the child learn to breathe through their nose, and guide growth as early as age three.
Dr. O'Rourke is a general dentist in West Michigan and has been in practice for over 25 years, providing growth guidance for children using Orthotropics®.