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Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing: How They Affect Your Health

Breathing more through your mouth than your nose can cause health complications and long-term issues. Learn about the causes and differences between nose breathing vs mouth breathing.

Man sleeps in bed while holding a tissue in one hand, with his mouth slightly agape and the tip of his nose a bit reddish.

It might sound strange to breathe through your mouth rather than your nose, as the latter is natural while the other is a habit. So, which is better when it comes to nose breathing vs mouth breathing?  

Primarily using the mouth to breathe is a health condition that requires medical attention. Read on to find out why it’s important to restore your breathing to its appropriate state. 

Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing: Key Differences 

As humans, it’s natural to breathe through our noses. We do it subconsciously, and it’s second nature to us. Our trachea (a tube that connects your voice box to your lungs) also shares a passageway with the oesophagus (a tube connecting your mouth to the stomach), which means we can also breathe through our mouth.

While we sometimes take in air through our mouths when we require more air, for example, when we exercise or have a blocked nose, the nose is most suitably designed for breathing. 

Filtration

Woman breathing in the air outdoors surrounded by greenery, demonstrating nose breathing vs mouth breathing
We’re meant to breathe primarily through our nose, although our mouth can also perform this task to a lesser extent.

When we breathe through our nose, a sophisticated filtration system kicks in. The tiny hairs inside our nostrils filter out dust and insects, preventing them from making their way in. A moist lining of mucus also helps trap particles and other allergens. 

Meanwhile, the mouth is the beginning of our digestive system. Air taken through the mouth isn’t filtered for harmful or obstructive particles. Breathing dusty air through the mouth, for example, could cause you to feel uncomfortable and cough. 

Temperature and humidity control 

Even the freshest air you breathe must be conditioned before entering your lungs. There are folds in your nose called turbinates that warm and moisten the air you breathe. Breathing in air through your mouth feels less comfortable and will be drier as it’ll affect saliva flow. 

Communication with the brain 

You also have specialised nerve cells in your nose that communicate smells to your brain. These cells detect molecules in the air that enter your nostrils. Nerve signals from the cells tell your brain what the smell is, including whether it’s pleasant. This helps you determine whether a scent might be harmful or poisonous. These cells are also essential for sustenance because recognising (and enjoying) the smell of food is important for appetite.

Your mouth also has specialised nerve cells housed in your taste buds. However, these cells detect taste, temperature, and texture – not smell.

Mouth Breathing: Effects and Causes 

Mouth breathing results in some unsavoury effects. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physician Vong U Chan reveals that some short-term effects of mouth breathing include dry mouth, chronic bad breath, tooth decay and mouth ulcers. “Breathing through the mouth dries it out. Doing so removes the first line of defence against oral bacteria,” she says. 

It also has long-term consequences that can affect your respiratory health. Obstructive sleep apnoea is one condition that can develop from mouth breathing. In TCM, a person will experience fatigue and lack energy and focus. “Breathing through the mouth results in taking in less oxygen. This can affect sleep quality and energy levels,” explains Physician Vong. 

Children who are mouth breathers can develop a “mouth breathing face”, a narrow facial structure with a receding chin and jaws. The receding jaws can also lead to malocclusion when the upper and lower teeth don’t align. Says Physician Vong, “This affects children’s development as the facial structure (a narrowed dental arch) results in insufficient space for the full set of adult teeth. Orthodontic treatment is required to correct it.” 

Causes of mouth breathing 

Mouth breathing indicates issues such as nasal congestion (caused by allergies, colds or chronic sinusitis) or anxiety manifested in shallow breathing. Over time, this inability to breathe properly can lead to a compromised respiratory system.

Other causes could be structural. In small children, enlarged adenoid glands can obstruct breathing and lead to mouth-breathing. The septum is a piece of bone and cartilage that divides your nose into your two nostrils. It can block the airways if it deviates to one side, making you resort to mouth breathing.

Treatments for Effects of Mouth Breathing

Chinese ginseng placed on a mat.
Ginseng can help with sinus and nasal congestion and improve upper respiratory health.

With structural issues, surgery may be the only option. However, nasal congestion caused by respiratory tract issues can be addressed without surgery. Over-the-counter nasal decongestants like pseudoephedrine can help give temporary relief. Antihistamines like loratadine that help with allergies can also reduce nasal symptoms that lead to congestion.

Feeling anxious and stressed can cause people to breathe through their mouth instead of their nose, as it activates the sympathetic nervous system. This leads to shallow, rapid and abnormal breathing. To remedy this, Physician Vong says, “TCM can treat through acupuncture and herbal medication to better help a person relax and cope with their stress and anxiety.”

Acupuncture  

For longer-lasting and systemic improvement of nasal congestion, TCM has some solutions. In 2015, researchers at the University Hospital Dresden in Germany studied acupuncture and loratadine use for nasal allergy symptoms. They found that 0% of the loratadine group demonstrated lasting improvement versus 80% for the acupuncture group.

“For acute nasal congestion (such as a cold or sinus infection), TCM views the underlying cause as an invasion of external pathogens, Wind, Heat, Dampness, Fire, Dryness and Cold. Each pathogen may act alone or in combination with others. Wind-Cold and Wind-Heat lead to colds or acute sinus infections,” explains Physician Vong. 

Common acupoints she recommends are ying xiang (LI20, 迎香), he gu, (LI4, 合谷), and feng chi (GB20, 风池) to clear nasal congestion. 

TCM herbs for respiratory health 

In 2019, the Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine published the results of a large study in Taiwan. Children treated with Chinese herbal medicine like Cang Er San (苍耳散) and Xin Yi San (辛夷散) had a 29% reduction in the risk of hospitalisation due to asthma.

TCM also offers formulations containing herbs that help strengthen the Lungs for respiratory health. A 2021 review in the Journal of Ginseng Research concluded that the most known ginseng varieties, including Chinese ginseng (ren shen, 人参), are effective in improving immunity.

Myofunctional therapy 

Using orthotics and exercises, myofunctional therapy helps strengthen airway muscles and improve nasal breathing to help with sleep disorders. These include snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea. Many exercises also help with mouth breathing, such as the cheek hook and alternate nostril breathing exercises. “Myofunctional therapy and nasal breathing exercises are safe. But it requires discipline and mindfulness to practice and correct mouth breathing,” Physician Vong shares. 

When deciding on nose breathing vs mouth breathing, the former is what we’re designed to do. Mouth breathing is not functionally part of the respiratory system and, if done for an extended period, can lead to health issues. It’s crucial to detect mouth breathing and correct it early.

References

  1. Cleveland Clinic. 2021. Nose. [online] Available at: <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21778-nose> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]
  2. Cleveland Clinic. 2022. Mouth Breathing. [online] Available at: <https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/22734-mouth-breathing> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]
  3. Cleveland Clinic. 2020. Should I Breathe Through My Mouth or Through My Nose? [online] Available at: <https://health.clevelandclinic.org/breathe-mouth-nose/> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]
  4. Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine. 2019. Long-term use of Chinese herbal medicine therapy reduced the risk of asthma hospitalization in school-age children: A nationwide population-based cohort study in Taiwan. [online] Available at: <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7109476/> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]
  5. Journal of Ginseng Research. 2020. Ginseng alleviates microbial infections of the respiratory tract: a review. [online] Available at: <https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1226845319303264> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]
  6. Healthcare Medicine Institute. 2015. Acupuncture Soothes Allergies & Sinus. [online] Available at: <https://www.healthcmi.com/Acupuncture-Continuing-Education-News/1420-acupuncture-soothes-allergies-sinus> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]
  7. SleepFoundation.org. 2022. Mouth And Throat Exercises to Help Stop Snoring and Improve OSA. [online] Available at: <https://www.sleepfoundation.org/snoring/mouth-exercises-to-stop-snoring> [Accessed on 9 October 2022]

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