“Mouth breather” is an insult that’s been around for years as a way of calling someone stupid. But mouth breathing itself is a dental and medical concern – whether a habit developed from poor orofacial function or from allergies or sinus problems, swollen adenoids or tonsils, or other issues that can make breathing difficult. In this light, mouth breathing is nothing to laugh at. It can, in fact, create significant problems over the long term, including crowding of the teeth and TMJ problems.
This is of special concern when it comes to children, whose dental arches are still developing. According to a recent study of mouth breathing published in General Dentistry,
Over time, children whose mouth breathing goes untreated may suffer from abnormal facial and dental development, such as long, narrow faces and mouths, gummy smiles, gingivitis and crooked teeth. The poor sleeping habits that result from mouth breathing can adversely affect growth and academic performance. As [study author] Dr. [Yosh] Jefferson notes in his article, “Many of these children are misdiagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADD) and hyperactivity.” In addition, mouth breathing can cause poor oxygen concentration in the bloodstream, which can cause high blood pressure, heart problems, sleep apnea and other medical issues.
“Children who mouth breathe typically do not sleep well, causing them to be tired during the day and possibly unable to concentrate on academics,” Dr. Jefferson said. “If the child becomes frustrated in school, he or she may exhibit behavioral problems.”
Check out this animation of how mouth breathing affects dental and facial development:
Habitual mouth breathing can also lead to dry mouth, which can contribute to caries (cavities), periodontal disease and other dental problems. Crowded teeth also can be more difficult to clean, raising the risk of caries even more.
If your child breathes through his or her mouth habitually, the first thing to do is consult your dentist. Examining your child’s oral conditions, he or she may find orofacial factors that may be encouraging the habit. Your dentist can also evaluate the effect mouth breathing is having on your child’s dental and facial development. If the arches have already begun to narrow, expanders can be used to help widen them. Other orthodontic measures may also be pursued to properly align the teeth and eliminate the crowding that usually happens when the arch narrows. As noted in the news of the mouth breathing study,
“After surgery and/or orthodontic intervention, many patients show improvement in behavior, energy level, academic performance, peer acceptance and growth,” says Leslie Grant, DDS, spokesperson for the AGD. “Seeking treatment for mouth breathing can significantly improve quality of life.”
One lesser known treatment that can be a tremendous help in correcting mouth breathing, tongue thrusting, incorrect swallowing and other bad habits that ultimately affect dental and facial development is myofunctional therapy. Through this form of physical therapy, the individual is taught various exercises to retrain and thus correct the function of the tongue and facial muscles. In our office, MFT is typically given in conjunction with early orthodontic intervention to optimize tooth alignment and occlusion while they are still relatively easy to adjust. But where orthodontics deals with the teeth, MFT deals with the oral habits and functions that affect the teeth.
To learn more about issues in oral-facial development, check out this excellent overview by Barbara Greene, COM, as well as this FAQ from the International Association of Orofacial Myology (a professional association of myofunctional therapists). Also be sure to read Dr. Verigin’s article “Why Not Raise Healthy, Attractive and Intelligent Children?” for information on other issues affecting children’s dental and facial development
To find a myofunctional therapist in your area, see the IAOM’s practitioner list.