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Most people don’t spend much time thinking about the way they breathe. Since it’s not something we need to be taught, we typically take it for granted. However, there is a right and a wrong way to breathe, and doing it wrong comes at a high cost. Mouth breathing does have a place, but a habit of doing it at the wrong time can be very destructive. When people get into the habit of mouth breathing during their sleep, for example, it causes numerous issues.
Human infants are what’s known as obligate nose breathers. This term is a bit nebulous. You would think it describes a creature that can only breathe through its nose. There are true obligate nose breathers, like horses, that can only breathe through their noses — if a horse is breathing through its mouth it means there are serious issues in the soft tissues of its airway. Other species, like humans and dogs, can choose whether to breathe through their nose or mouth. When we say an infant is an obligate nose breather, what we mean is that it will always try to breathe through its nose first, and will only switch to mouth breathing when the nasal passages are obstructed. It is also normal to mouth breathe during exercise, when it allows more oxygen to make it to your muscles.
It may come as a surprise, but you actually absorb oxygen from the air during the exhale. When you exhale through your nose, it creates a back pressure that facilitates better oxygen absorption. Since breathing through the mouth is less efficient, mouth breathers have to take more breaths to get the oxygen the need — in some cases twice as many. This rapid, open-mouthed breathing leads to dryness of the mouth and throat, acidifies saliva and erodes the enamel of the teeth, and contributes to gingivitis. In children, mouth breathing can lead to developmental issues in the mouth. To learn more about the effects of mouth breathing, check out our page on sleep apnea and airway issues.