Most of us breathe and do not actually think about how we are doing it. This is a good thing! Because children are still developing their facial features, chronic mouth breathing in kids can lead to more permanent consequences.
When you find yourself aware of your breathing, there is typically a reason. Sometimes mouth breathing is done temporarily, but if it is done for a long period of time, a host of health concerns may happen.
Mouth breathing is simply a process where we open our mouths to breathe air into our lungs and bypass using our noses. Nasal congestion or blockage is typically the underlying reason.
My previous post explores the many purposes of the nose; therefore, not using your nose has some significant consequences.
A few of the main functions of the nose are to warm, clean, and humidify the air you breathe. A healthy normal person will produce about two quarts of fluid (mucus) every day. Mucus is vital to our health and helps keep the respiratory tract clean and moist.
Tiny microscopic hairs (cilia) line the surfaces of the nasal cavity and move back and forth to help brush away particles. Eventually, the mucus and particles are moved to the back of the throat where it is unconsciously swallowed. This process occurs all day, every day.
There are many ways to think about the reasons people mouth breathe. As physicians, we are typically trained to think about any problem in terms of the problem type.
These are the main 5 categories we think about when we are looking for a diagnosis:
- Congenital: You are born with it
- Traumatic: It happens because of an injury
- Iatrogenic (EYE-at-TRO-jen-ICK): It happened during medical treatment
- Inflammatory: Well, it is due to inflammation, duh!
- Neoplastic: It is related to a tumor
However because I am a surgeon, I tend to separate causes into structural reasons as opposed to functional reasons.
For the most part, a structural problem is a persistent physical one that requires some mechanical or surgical intervention. Functional problems represent a large category that may resolve on their own, respond to environmental changes or medications.
Functional Causes of Chronic Mouth breathing in Kids
For the most part, functional causes of mouth breathing in kids is related to temporary swelling in the lining of the nose. Rhinitis (RYE-nigh-TIS) is the official term physicians use to describe this inflammation process in the nose.
Colds and flu
Everyone has had a cold, but hopefully, most of us will never get the flu. Get that flu shot, yo!
Typical viral infections are self-limited problems. If the symptoms become severe or the problem lasts too long, a complication may have occurred. Although we tend to want our kids to get better quickly, there really is an expected timeline for how long cold symptoms last.
An allergic reaction is a very specific reaction that occurs in response to a foreign substance. The results cause the release of substances into the blood which then cause the allergy symptoms. Of course, classic allergens include pollen, dust, mold, and foods. But the list is actually endless!
Allergy reactions can impact the entire body but the hallmark symptom is a stuffy or a runny nose. Many people who think they have allergies but may have another medical problem. It is important to understand how to know if you actually do have allergies. Also, my might want to check out my post about the best nasal allergy treatments.
The exact same symptoms that allergies can cause often occur with a different immune reaction. Therefore, it is NOT all allergy. Looks the same but not the same.
Because the immune reaction is different, many times typical allergy medication is not as effective. Common causes of non-allergic rhinitis include smoke, pollution, perfume, and paint fumes. One of the best ways to remove substances from the nose is to perform frequent salt water nasal rinses.
When nasal swelling becomes severe, it can block the drainage site of the sinuses. Ongoing sinus infections will continue to cause swelling which is not responsive to rhinitis treatments.
Many people only think about acute sinus infections with classic symptoms of a yellow-green runny nose, headache, and fever. However, ENT surgeons often see patients with chronic sinus infections with long-term nasal swelling which causes chronic mouth breathing in kids.
As mentioned above, turbinate swelling is a major cause of mouth breathing in kids. If treated early, the swelling is reversible. Over time, when chronic swelling occurs, it may become a problem that does indeed need surgical intervention.
Every time an Ear Nose and Throat physician evaluates a child for a stuffy nose, we mentally go through a checklist of these causes. Based on the history (which we really need parents to help us understand), the patient age and severity of symptoms, we often begin our evaluation. Be sure to check out my post where I discuss the importance of dentists and physicians to work together for long term management of chronic mouth breathing kids.
Often the causes are easily treated at home using your particular brand of Momma Medicine. if you are unable to improve the problem at home, I recommend an evaluation by your child’s primary care physician. I feel urgent care and walk-in centers are meant for acute problems that need treatment NOW, not for the chronic problems that will need more evaluation and assessment of treatments.
As always, much love for supporting my work. I will be adding many more posts to highlight parenting and healthcare tips, so be sure to consider subscribing to my podcast or to my blog to avoid missing a post!
Such an important topic! Thanks for sharing this information in a thorough yet easy to read way!
I am hopeful that this can be a great resource for families who have questions about possible causes. Great to get the information out that it is not just a habit.
Thank you for this overview of the causes of mouth breathing. One of our cherubs snores for quite a while and raised some concern about redundant tissue in his airway. He appears to have grown out of it.
Yes, most of the time it is self-limited and when kids get bigger, it improves or completely goes away. That’s great news that the things I listed are not present!
Hello! I am a chronic mouth breather, and so is my son now. I have all of the side effects of a mouth breather and now my son is starting. We went to a ENT and he looked at him and didn’t see anything. My mother is also a chronic mouthed breather. What would you do in my situation to figure this out? We just went to an ENT & he says there is nothing that is enlarged. Please help! Could it just be the way we were made or is there something we are not seeing?
As my post says, there are many different reasons. Each person has a different reason. I would focus on your child since there are different concerns with adults. ENT surgeons often focus on physical problems like enlarged adenoids (seen with telescopes or xrays) but you might look into seeing an allergist, and dentist. There are also specialists (oral facial myology) who work on training muscles around the face, but they need other medical problems evaluated and treated. You might check out my post about the consequences of mouth breathing (https://www.drmommasays.com/healthcare/nose/truth-about-health-consequences-of-mouth-breathing/) and check out a linked website by Dr. Meredith White. Good luck.