Mouth breathing is a common issue, but in extreme cases, it can result in serious health problems and can diminish an individual’s quality of life. Whatever its cause, resolving the problem of mouth breathing at its source is crucial. In this special guest interview, Victor D. Woodlief, DMD of our west coast sister practice discusses the risks of leaving this issue untreated, and how specialized dentistry can help.

Dr. Woodlief, what are some of the causes of mouth breathing?

Mouth breathing can occur in adults and in children, and there are various reasons for this. Frequently, a sufferer’s bite is misaligned, or her jaw and teeth are positioned so that her lips don’t quite close when she sleeps. Many times, a nasal obstruction will result in mouth breathing. Children who mouth breathe may do so because their tonsils are abnormally large. That can cause an obstruction.

Why is mouth breathing a problem?

Our bodies are structured for us to breathe primarily and normally through our noses. During normal nasal breathing, our noses filter, warm, and moisten the air we take in before it gets to our lungs. Those who cannot breathe easily through their noses take in cold, dry air through their mouths instead.

Mouth breathing in children can result in permanent skeletal deformities. Generally, people who suffer with mouth breathing develop narrower upper jaws, smaller lower jaws, and longer faces. This is because mouth breathing only promotes the growth of the upper jaw, rather than both jaws. An overjet (protruding teeth), a large overbite, and a smile that reveals too much of the gums are frequently the results of this uneven jaw growth.

How does mouth breathing cause narrowed upper jaws?

Our tongues have a key role in influencing the growth of the upper jaw and overall cranial growth. When mouth breathing is not a problem, a child’s tongue will naturally rest against the roof of her mouth when she is resting or swallowing subconsciously. In this position, the tongue gently forces outward against the upper teeth, and this balances the inward force of nearby mouth muscles. This balance permits the teeth to erupt normally around the tongue in a rounded arch. When a child is mouth breathing, the tongue cannot create that outward force within the palate, because it rests on the floor of the mouth. Without the outward force from the tongue, nearby mouth muscles can more freely push inward on the upper arch. In time, this results in the arch narrowing, which creates a higher (vaulted) palate, pushing upward into the nose, blocking the child’s nasal passages, and making nasal breathing difficult or impossible.

Why is nasal breathing important for our health?

Nasal breathing allows our nasal and sinus mucous membranes to make a gas called nitric oxide; this is one of the most important reasons for us to breathe through our noses. Our systems produce this gas in small amounts, but these small amounts can increase our lungs’ capacity to absorb oxygen (by anywhere between 10-25%) when we inhale them. In addition, nitric oxide keeps us healthy by killing bacteria, viruses, and other germs.

Mouth breathing, on the other hand, cannot help to promote nitric oxide production, so those who mouth breathe cannot absorb oxygen as easily. The body’s ability to fight infection is also diminished by this lack of nitric oxide production. Overall, it can make the body more prone to serious health problems.

What kinds of health problems can mouth breathing cause?

Our abilities to smell and taste are connected. In people who can’t breathe well through their noses, both of these senses will suffer. This can create appetite disturbances and lead to issues for those with weight issues.

Nasal breathing difficulties can also make snoring worse, and can contribute to sleep apnea. On its own, nasal congestion doesn’t necessarily cause sleep apnea, but can make it worse. When a sufferer sleeps deeply on his back during muscle relaxation, a high palate, a predisposition to tongue structures to falling backward easily, and a blocked or stuffy nose can contribute to further issues. When sleep apnea is left untreated, it can lead to anxiety or depression, chronic fatigue, heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, stroke, and weight gain.

How can dentistry help patients who want to stop mouth breathing?

When an individual is mouth breathing due to a nasal obstruction, the first thing to do is identify what might be blocking the nose. If the blockage is due to a misaligned jaw or narrow palate, we can gradually and gently align the jaw properly and/or expand the palate using specialized dental techniques.

Winchester Dental can screen patients who believe they are suffering with these issues, and when necessary, refer them to sleep specialists for further diagnosis. Please call us to schedule a screening!

References
Flutter, J. (n.d.). The negative effect of mouth breathing on the body and development of the child. Retrieved from Fast Trax Orthodontics: http://www.fasttraxortho.com/Mouthbreathing.pdf