Habitual mouth breathing is known to have a negative effect on our health. This applies both to adults and children but is perhaps even more negative in the latter because of its effects on physical and cognitive development. This has been known for quite some time, yet awareness in the general public is still quite low.
The nose is the correct part of the face to use for normal, healthy breathing, not the mouth. The nose has a range of structures that help to filter the incoming air. It also serves to warm and moisturise it. Breathing through the nose enables the body to best prepare the air for entry into the lungs.
At birth, we are naturally nose breathers. Unfortunately, many children pick up the bad habit of breathing through the mouth early on. Various cultures are aware of this and address the problem using several techniques unique to their various groups. In the West, the general awareness of the problem is low and the issue remains mostly unaddressed.
Harmful Effects of Mouth Breathing
There are many harmful effects that come from mouth breathing. For example, the pharyngeal tissues dry out and fail to filter the air entering our body, hence we are more vulnerable to bacteria and other irritants that we really do not want in our bodies. This can lead to inflamed adenoids and tonsils. It can also lead to an increase in the number of upper respiratory infections, gingivitis, dry coughs and tooth decay.
Perhaps the biggest concern though, particularly for parents, is the negative effect that mouth breathing can have on a child’s cognitive development. This may be due to a number of factors but perhaps the simplest explanation is a lack of oxygen reaching the brain.
If children’s mouth breathing remains untreated they are likely to suffer abnormal facial development. Their faces will tend to become longer and narrower. There are dental issues to consider too, such as an increase in cavities and crooked teeth.
Mouth breathing can lead to poor sleeping. This in turn can adversely affect their academic performance. It has been pointed out that many children are misdiagnosed with ADD and ADHD when they are actually simply mouth breathing and suffering the consequences.
Symptoms of Mouth Breathing
Mouth breathing comes with a wide range of symptoms. If you find yourself displaying such symptoms, or see them in your child, it is wise to address the problem as soon as possible. Here are just a few:
Interestingly, having a dry mouth comes with its very own name: xerostomia. Essentially, it happens when your saliva glands cannot produce enough saliva to keep the mouth moist. If it occurs for an extended period of time, it may lead to poor breath, dry throat (causing coughing), and dry lips.
We all need saliva as the beginning of the process of digestion, hence the encouragement that one often hears to masticate food thoroughly. The process of chewing your food helps to moisten and break down the particles. The saliva also helps your body to maintain dental health and protects the mouth from tooth decay and gum disease.
The Mouth Hangs Open
The mouth held open, with a slack-jawed expression, is a common sign of mouth breathing. Extended over a long period of time (many parents are unaware of the implications), it will lead to a permanent change of expression with an accompanying elongation of the face. It both looks and actually is unhealthy. The facial muscles will tend to droop giving a disturbingly unpleasant and disconcerting mien to the expression.
Dry and Cracked Lips
If one habitually uses the mouth to breathe, it will lead to dry and cracked lips as you constantly draw the unwarmed air over them. Again, this tends to come together with an open-mouthed expression. If you spend some time observing the public you will witness an alarmingly large number of people displaying these symptoms.
Bad breath (Halitosis)
A recent study showed a significant association between halitosis and mouth breathing. Alarmingly, it also demonstrated that there is a general increase in the habit but particularly amongst males.
As stated above, when we habitually use our mouths to breathe it passes dryer air through the mouth. The result is often a very dry mouth. This reduces the positive effects of saliva and creates a fertile feeding ground for the growth of plaque (1).
Halitosis is just one likely consequence of this process. If you wish to avoid bad breath, maybe it would be wiser to adopt sensible breathing habits rather than paying out a fortune on mouthwashes and mints!
Dark Circles Under the Eyes
In our modern stressed and overworked world, it is very common to see people with dark circles beneath their eyes. This is perhaps particularly the case, quite shockingly, with children. The reason, for the most part, is obvious: poor sleep. One obvious reason for the preponderance of these symptoms is sleep deprivation. For adults, it relates to the stressful nature of much of modern life. For children, it often relates to too many late nights and the use of smartphones and other media.
Obviously, when we see our children showing such symptoms, sleep time and quality should be the first thing that comes to mind. If there are no such problems with sleep though, then alarms bells should start to ring. There are several other reasons why children may be displaying such symptoms, but one of the most common is mouth breathing.
If a child is allowed to habitually breathe through the mouth it will tend to lead to long bouts of nasal congestion. Effectively, this will feel to the child as if he/she cannot breathe through the nose, even if they wanted to. The drainage channels in the skin beneath the eyes would normally drain into the area around the nose but if this is permanently blocked they will struggle to do so.
There is a need for parents to be aware of the signs of mouth breathing in their children. Pursed lips, snoring, a slack-jawed expression, chapped lips, a tendency towards having a sore throat, and frequent cold-liked symptoms are some of the more common signs that your child is using their mouth instead of the nose to breathe. They would also indicate a need to act immediately, stopping the habit before it takes hold.
Our tonsils are two lymph nodes that are found on each side of the back of the throat. They are a defence mechanism that assists the body in fighting against infection. Sometimes the tonsils themselves become infected. This is known as tonsillitis.
Tonsillitis is a very common childhood infection, though it can happen at any age. It is quite painful and unpleasant. The sufferer will often experience a sore throat, fever-like symptoms and the tonsils themselves will become sore and swollen.
Tonsillitis is not contagious in itself, but most of the infections that cause it are. Contracting it can be quite dangerous. Tonsillitis is caused by common viruses and bacteria. The streptococcal bacteria is a primary example. There is even a version of tonsillitis known specifically as strep throat. This particular type of tonsillitis is often very serious and can lead to some very unpleasant complications if it is not treated early enough (2).
Because air going into the mouth is entering in a completely unfiltered state, it is much more likely to cause infections such as tonsillitis. Air entering through the nose, on the other hand, is heavily filtered and thus offers a much greater level of protection.
What Can Be Done To Correct The Problem of Mouth Breathing?
There is an obvious solution to so many of these problems: train yourself or your children to habitually breathe through the nose. As ever, such a solution will be challenging simply because mouth breathing is a habit. Even negative habits that we are fully aware are harming us can be very challenging to amend. Smoking is an obvious example. There must be few people indeed who don’t realise that smoking is an extremely stupid and self-destructive habit. Trying to give it up though, even with this knowledge, is often extremely challenging.
If we can adopt nose-breathing to the point where it becomes a habit in itself, we will reap benefits on a number of levels. Such changes require work and do take time and commitment though. On the other hand, as long as you are diligent for just a few weeks, you can build new and more positive breathing patterns which will serve you for the rest of your life.
Techniques to Address the Mouth Breathing Problem
Fortunately, there are a number of techniques and aids that can be used to help us become predominantly nose-breathers.
This is a fairly normal technique to encourage us to breathe deeply and utilising the lower part of the lungs rather than just the upper chest. Having said that, I need to point out that calling it ‘stomach’ or, more commonly, ‘belly’ breathing is something of a misnomer. The reality is that you draw the diaphragm downwards and the ribs out.
If, of course, the image or the feeling of drawing the air into your stomach helps, then by all means utilize it.
To perform this exercise adopt a balanced position. It matters little whether you choose to do it standing, sitting or laying down, just as long as your posture is reasonable.
Keep your mouth shut. Some even use a little tape to achieve this purpose but this seems too extreme to me for such a simple exercise.
Draw the air in through the nose to the deepest part of your lungs, the upper chest should remain perfectly still. If it helps, you can lay a hand on your chest to ensure this is the case: it should remain still.
Once full, allow the air to escape through the nose. Do so without using force; simply relax and let go.
Repeat the process for between five and ten minutes and do it daily for three to four weeks. If you simply do such things regularly, they will become habit. When you catch yourself breathing through the mouth, the memory of the nose breathing exercise will return and this will remind you to self-correct. After a while, there will be no need as you will be habitually breathing through your nose.
I note that some online sources recommend exhaling through the mouth for this exercise. This is incorrect and merely encourages bad habits. The mouth is for eating (the proverbial ‘cakehole’ of my childhood!), whereas the nostrils are the appropriate apparatus for breathing.
Pranayama is a part of yoga that deals with breathing techniques. Prana itself can be thought of as another expression of the ancient idea of life-or energy, but for our purposes we will simply deal with it as breath.
Ujjayi can be roughly translated as ‘victory over’. In this case, we may think of it as victory over our habitual mouth breathing!
To do this exercise, start simply by closing your mouth. Just shut it … but without tension or stress. Interestingly, what we are seeking is a feeling of the passing of the air in the throat even though the air is inhaled through the nostrils.
Draw the air in through the nose with sufficient force to make it audible. You should be able to hear the sound and that sound should be coming from the throat rather than the nostrils. The sound should be smooth and steady, the volume and tone equal on the inhalation and the exhalation.
The length of the inhalation and exhalation should also be equal. To achieve this, you can use a timing device. Either a metronome, an app, or any form of timing device that beats with sound will do just fine. Aim for between 3 to 5 seconds for the inhalation and the same amount for the exhalation.
With this exercise, there is no gap. You simply go from inhalation to exhalation and back again continuously.
As Ujjayi relies on a partial constriction of the throat in order to create the sounds, it will lengthen respiration time and improve our normal oxygen saturation. This will strengthen the diaphragm and make your breathing more efficient.
The most fundamental reason to adopt this daily practice from our point of view though is that it will help to train your nervous system into the habitual practice of nasal breathing. There are other benefits but they are not within the purview of this particular article.
Square breathing is another technique that probably originates from pranayama but has been extensively used in freediving. It will help you to become conscious of how you are breathing and promote better habits, particularly in regard to nasal breathing.
The practice is simple enough. As ever with these exercises, all breathing is done through the nose. As the name implies, there are four sides to the technique.
- Breathe in through the nostrils. Make it a comfortably deep breath. Four or five seconds should do for starters but this will extend as you improve your breathing capabilities.
- Hold that breath for the same amount of time.
- Release the breath, again for the same amount of time, again using the nostrils only.
- Hold the breath after the exhale for an equal amount of time.
At first, this exercise can be done from a comfortable position but, as time goes by and your breathing improves, you can readily adopt it in your walking. Simply use the rhythm of your stride to mark out the time.
There are specially designed strips that can be used as a very direct way to promote nose breathing whilst you are asleep. They can help people who suffer from sleep apnea by forcing them, more or less, to breathe through the nose. Care needs to be taking with taping, however, hence the need for tape that is specifically designed for the purpose.
The employment of these tapes is simplicity itself. Just tape them over the mouth prior to sleeping. The commercially available versions are often H-shaped, thus making it difficult to breathe through the mouth but not impossible. We are not looking to suffocated anyone here!
By now, I hope it is clear that mouth breathing is harmful in a whole range of ways. Fortunately, though, there are numerous techniques and aids that can help us to address the problem. Most of the techniques are very simple but their adoption will lead to the development of the habit of nasal breathing. This is our target. If you are a parent, you may well wish to think about ensuring your children breathes properly through the nose. Failure to take such action may well lead to all manner of unpleasant complications later in the child’s life. Not the least of these is the threat to their cognitive development. Surely, that alone, makes it worthwhile to teach your child to breathe properly?