How Mouth Breathing Affects Your Oral Health
You bought an electric toothbrush. You're good about flossing (mostly). You drink your wine through a straw. When it comes to your teeth, you're pretty much killing it. But if you mouth breathe - at night, during exercise, or just going about your day - it can have unexpected effects on your oral health.
Though we might not think much about it, the way we breath matters. The pathway air takes actually determines how it's used in the body. At different times we breathe through our nose, our mouth, or in combination. You might mouth breathe when you exert yourself, like running to catch the door, or when you have a stuffy nose. But when someone over-relies on their mouth to breathe this is known as chronic mouth breathing, or CMB.
What causes mouth breathing?
Let's be clear: mouth breathing isn't a bad habit to be conquered. It's something you need a little help to control. It may be due to something superficial like nasal congestion, or there may be a more systemic cause. It can also be a stress reaction: in moments of anxiety we go into fight or flight, which makes us hyperventilate involuntarily. But it can also be due to nasal obstruction. The human body is pretty resilient: when there's something deficient in one area, we compensate with another. So if our airway is blocked by a deviated septum, nasal polyps or enlarged adenoids, we're redirect air through our mouth. But this can lead us to overcompensate with our mouth on the regular.
Does it cause bad breath?
You do a lot to keep your mouth minty fresh, so it can be frustrating and embarrassing if you're plagued by bad breath. You may find that you wake up each morning with a bad taste in your mouth - but it's not for lack of effort. If your mouth is hanging open all night, it's liable to dry out because you're not swallowing and keeping it moist (sorry) like you do during the day. When you think about it, your mouth is optimized to support specific conditions. When this environment changes due to dryness, the bacteria and dead cells that cause bad breath are allowed to flourish.
Does it cause tooth decay?
You've already been lectured many times over about how to be good to your teeth. You know the role diet and brushing habits play. But if you sleep with your mouth open, this work can be getting undone right under your nose. This is because plaque and food particles aren't getting swept away by your saliva (sorry again). For the same reason it causes bad breath, CMB can lead to tooth decay, gum recession and periodontal disease like gingivitis. You may notice your smile looking gummy in pictures: while this has many causes, teeth can become nubby from wear, making gums look bigger by comparison.
Can it change face shape?
Mouth breathing actually affects how your jaw develops. Because the tongue doesn't sit properly against the palate, the face develops differently. This is why dentists are often the first to notice mouth breathing in patients. Chronic mouth breathing in the formative years can lead to crooked teeth, a long face and a weak chin. (Some people have taken this to mean you can use tongue posture to better your jawline, a trend known as mewing, but there isn't medical evidence that you can change your face shape this way.)
How do I stop mouth breathing at night?
Even if you've mastered your breath during the day, mouth breathing can still occur at night. So how do you sleep with your mouth closed? If the problem is due to nasal obstruction, one option is surgery. But more and more doctors are shunning rhinoplasty for less invasive measures. If the problem is caused by nasal congestion, the options have typically been medication or home remedies like saline rinses. There's also a new trend called mouth taping, which is exactly what it sounds like.
A solution more people are turning to is nasal dilators, a small wearable that keeps your nostrils propped open so you can get better airflow. These can be external (like Breathe Right strips) or internal (like HALE). With a little help, anyone can enjoy a bright and fresh smile.