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The question

I'm a little embarrassed by this: I'm a mouth-breather. Is this really such a bad thing? Does it affect my health?

The answer

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Apart from the embarrassment that can arise from mouth-breathing, there are potentially serious health consequences associated with this abnormal breathing pattern.

Mouth-breathing occurs when we inhale and exhale through our mouth instead of our nose. While it is more common for people to mouth-breath at night, for some it can occur during the day as well.

Common causes of mouth-breathing include allergies, anatomical abnormalities such as enlarged tonsils and adenoids or blockage of the sinuses or nose from polyps, a deviated septum or congestion from infection. If the mouth-breathing is at night, it could be related to sleep apnea.

For instances in which mouth-breathing occurs as a result of getting sick, it may be a temporary thing. You should return to your regular breathing when the congestion clears. Temporary mouth-breathing such as this is not cause for alarm, but if it becomes chronic, it can have negative effects.

When we breath through our nose, air passes over the mucous membranes and into the sinuses, and produces nitric oxide, which helps the body's smooth muscle (found in the heart and blood vessels) to function. There is some thought that mouth-breathers may not be getting all the oxygen they need, which can lead to fatigue and,in some situations may cause stress to the heart and lungs.

In terms of dental health, breathing through the mouth can dry the oral cavity and lead to bad breath, gum disease and tooth decay.

A special note should be made for children. Children who mouth-breath can develop physical deformities and have poor outcomes in terms of behaviour and health. They may develop a smaller chin, have slower growth and give poor school performance due to fatigue and inattention. Causes of mouth-breathing in children can range from enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids to allergies. Regardless of the cause, they should be seen by their doctor to prevent these potential complications.

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If you breathe primarily through your mouth, consider seeing your doctor to determine whether the cause can be reversed. Allergies can be treated, and anatomical blockages can be surgically corrected. For night mouth-breathers, weight loss can be helpful if obesity is causing the obstruction. Or for severe cases of sleep apnea, a specialized machine called CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) can be helpful in opening the nasal passages.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasinghe your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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