Is mouth breathing bad for you?
Breathing comes so naturally that we often overlook the adverse symptoms caused by poor breathing technique. It’s vital to understand the benefits of nasal breathing and the health impacts of chronic mouth breathing.
Since your first moment on Earth, you've taken breath after breath to get from one day to the next. Breathing is an automatic function that comes easily to most people. How then, are almost one-third of all people not breathing well enough to sustain normal health?¹
In many cases, the issue is in this simplicity; people often don't give breathing a second thought. As a result, they develop bad breathing habits that can lead to poor health outcomes.
How can I determine if my breathing technique is incorrect?
Understanding the distinction between the nose and mouth is essential. The nose was designed for breathing, while the mouth's main functions include eating, drinking and speaking.
Mouth breathing, sighing, and heavy breathing during rest and speech are classic signs of "over breathing". which can prevent the tissues and organs in your body from getting the amount of oxygen necessary to maintain optimal health.²
What are the risks associated with chronic mouth breathing?
The nose is the filter of the body, cleansing and humidifying the air for delivery in the lungs. Bypassing this function by regularly breathing through your mouth introduces respiratory, dental, and even sleep issues. The long-term effects of mouth breathing lead to health concerns that may be difficult to correct.
Chronic mouth breathing can lead to challenges including:³
- Snoring and obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)
- Bad breath (halitosis), dental decay, and gum disease
- Jaw problems (temporomandibular joint — or TMJ — disorders)
- Crowded, crooked, or misaligned teeth (malocclusion)
- Difficulty speaking and swallowing
- Airway soft tissue trauma
- Enlarged tonsils and adenoids
- Exacerbated asthma symptoms⁴
- Facial structure changes, including a narrowed face and receding chin or jaw ("mouth breathing face")
What are the benefits of nasal breathing?
Humans were designed to breathe through the nose. Breathing through the nose offers numerous benefits to the body compared to breathing through the mouth:
- Temperature and Humidity Control: The nasal passageways warm and humidify the air before it reaches into the lungs. This function makes breathing more comfortable and helps to prevent a dry mouth or sore throat after sleeping.
- Filtration: Small hairs in the nose (cilia) filter out debris and toxins. This process redirects potentially harmful air away from the lungs.
- Increased Oxygen Intake: Breathing through your nose adds up to 50% more resistance than mouth breathing, which helps maintain lung capacity by allowing them to properly inflate and deflate. These processes can increase your oxygen intake by as much as 10-20%.⁵
- Production of Nitric Oxide: Nitric oxide (NO) contributes to your lungs' ability to absorb and transport oxygen throughout the body. Nitric oxide can also help the immune system fight infection, as it has antifungal, antiviral, and antibacterial properties.⁶
How to stop mouth breathing
Up to 30-50% of modern adults are mouth breathers⁷, especially during the early morning hours. It's not uncommon to catch yourself breathing by mouth, especially if there's an underlying issue that impacts your ability to nasal breathe.
Common causes of mouth breathing include:
- Deviated Septum: When the thin wall — or the nasal septum — in your nose is not centered, it makes one nasal passage smaller than the other. This condition can cause difficulty in breathing through one or both nostrils. It can also block one side of the nose and reduce airflow. Corrective surgery may be required to increase airflow through the nose and correct a deviated septum.⁸
- Enlarged Adenoids: Located above the tonsils, adenoids are a mass of tissue that protect your health by trapping hazardous germs that enter the body through the nose or mouth. When infected, they can swell and can cause a stuffy nose that impacts nasal breathing.⁹
- Nasal Congestion: This common symptom can occur as a result of colds, allergies, or infections.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea: Sleep disorders like OSA occur when breathing stops and restarts many times during sleep. This can prevent the body from receiving sufficient oxygen.¹⁰ Chronic nasal obstruction decreases nasal flow and leads to mouth breathing.¹¹
How do I know if I'm a mouth breather?
You may be a “mouth breather” if you experience any of the following:¹²
- Sleeping with your mouth open
- Itchy nose
- Drooling while sleeping, or noticing drool on your pillow upon waking
- Nocturnal sleep problems or agitated sleep
- Nasal obstruction
- Irritability during the day
How to promote nasal breathing for optimal health
Practice breathing in and out through your nose.
Awareness and practicing regular breath exercises can help your body relearn proper nasal breathing form.
Clear nasal blockages.
Address nasal obstructions by blowing your nose or practicing nasal hygiene to enable easier breathing through the nostrils. Nasal rinsing helps to remove mucus and allergies, reducing nasal congestion. It becomes easier and more comfortable to breathe through the nose when nasal passages are clear.
Stress often leads to rushed breathing, causing mouth breathing. Reducing stress can improve your breathing pattern.
Adjust your sleeping arrangements.
Mouth breathing at night poses risks like obstructive sleep apnea, which can impact your quality of sleep and energy levels. Try using an extra pillow — or swap it out for a thicker one — to elevate your head. Many doctors also recommend adopting a sleep hygiene routine to eliminate possible irritants before bed. This can include humidifying your bedroom air, applying nasal breathing strips, and medicating your nasal passages to ease congestion before bedtime.
Engaging in regular exercise like daily walks or runs increases the need for deep breaths, which can naturally shift the breathing process to the nose.
Seek help from a professional.
Whether it's to address nasal obstruction or challenges that interrupt sleep, a specialist can diagnose an underlying condition and develop a treatment plan to encourage proper breathing. A myofunctional therapist can use exercises to retrain the facial muscles and improve breathing patterns.
In case other methods are not working, a medical specialist may recommend being evaluated as a surgery candidate. If your doctor finds it necessary, they may present surgical options to address nasal structural issues that hinder nasal breathing.¹³
Deliver medication to affected areas.
Your health provider may recommend medicine that can be delivered through the nose. These medicines can reduce inflammation, fight infection, and provide relief. They may also prescribe medication to be used with a reliable delivery device like a nasal nebulizer to reach deep into the nasal cavity where the medicine can reduce nasal obstruction. This may make it more comfortable for individuals to breathe through their nose rather than their mouth.
Final thoughts on nose breathing vs mouth breathing
Adopting proper nasal breathing into daily life can significantly impact your overall health and well-being. From increasing blood oxygen levels to improving sleep quality, nasal breathing benefits go beyond aesthetic concerns like the "mouth breather face" popularized on social media. If you're struggling to stop the habit, talk to your doctor for help with improving your breathing.