While reading an article about saliva flow levels linked to mouth breathing while wearing a mask (I know, not the most glamorous topic but really fascinating to me!), instantly I thought to research more about it and share this insightful information and tips with you all!
Regardless of where we all stand on the subject of masks, this article is purely about what is the best way of breathing with them and to help us continue to navigate our path to greater oral (and whole-body) health.
What is “mask mouth”?
Due to the pandemic, the public at large is now faced with having to navigate the impact of prolonged habitual mask wearing which includes mask mouth.
While wearing masks, there’s a psychological effect which causes people to change how they breathe. Rather than breathing through our nose, we switch to breathing through our mouths. This leads to the adverse oral side effect known as “mask mouth”.
The tendency towards mouth breathing is the primary cause of dry mouth, which occurs when you don’t have enough saliva to keep your mouth moist. Saliva is a crucial player for many facets of oral health; from fighting off harmful bacteria to cleansing out food debris in your mouth. It also maintains the acid/alkaline balance in the mouth, thus preventing tooth decay and gum disease. Also, the decreased saliva flow from dry mouth alters the oral microbiome — the bacteria habitat in the mouth.
What can dry mouth cause?
Dry mouth increases the risk of tooth decay and developing a slew of other undesirable conditions and symptoms such as:
- Tender gums
- Persistent bad breath
- Fungal infections
- Inflamed or irritated corners of the lips
Inhaling and exhaling under a mask can also deposit moisture and alter the normal bacteria on the outer parts of the skin and lips, leading to dermatological side effects like acne.
However, the incorrect mouth breathing while wearing a mask can over time lead to gum diseases and tooth decay.
Having practiced meditation and pilates for some time already, I am familiar with the importance of the breath. If you’ve studied voice or even sports like scuba diving or free diving, some of this information may sound familiar to you too.
Mouth breathing: the core of the issue
Just like when we’re exercising vigorously, one of the natural ways our bodies respond to a low-oxygen situation (like being out of breath) is by prompting us to breathe through our mouth rather than our nose. What’s important to bring to light here is that the body does all of this unconsciously as an attempt to decrease blood CO2 and increase oxygen levels.
Mouth breathing is a major mechanism that the body uses to increase the amount of oxygen we can intake.
Habitual mouth breathing also invites a host of other system-wide breakdowns, including bad breath and even teeth becoming misaligned over time (because it prevents our tongue from being in the proper position against the roof of the mouth to help support the alignment of our teeth).
What role does the saliva play?
Saliva levels play a huge role in whether or not the thug germs implicated with tooth decay (and gum disease) gain the upper hand in our oral microbiome.
Decreased saliva levels allow these trouble-causing oral pathogens to build their numbers.
Unconsciously breathing through the mouth due to slightly elevated blood CO2 levels (that the body perceives as a low-oxygen event) is a sure way to dry out our mouth.
Facts to keep in your pocket:
- Wearing a mask for long periods of time can lead to increased levels of CO2 in the blood, which can lead to unintentional mouth breathing (to compensate for this low-oxygen event).
- Mouth breathing leads to decreased saliva and dry mouth.
- Dry mouth allows thug germs to proliferate and gain the upper hand in the oral microbiome.
- If the above steps are habitual, then this shift in the oral microbiome causes an increased tendency for both tooth decay and gum disease.
What can we do to mitigate the risks of mask mouth?
1. Be conscious of your breathing.
If you need to wear a mask for longer periods of time, tune into your breathing. By bringing conscious awareness to your breathing on a regular basis, you can mitigate the creeping fatigue and brain fog that can result from a long-term, low-oxygen environment.
While in a mask-heavy zone, try setting a timer for every 15-30 minutes. This way, your little timer can go off and remind you to turn your attention to taking 5 slow, deep breaths.
2. Learn to keep your tongue in the ‘home’ position and to breathe through your nose all the time (even when you’re not wearing a mask).
This gem is a big one for us.
When we train our tongues to rest in the place where they’re meant to hang out (the roof of the mouth), we will naturally breathe more fully, which addresses some of the negative consequences from mask wearing.
3. Maintain a good oral hygiene routine
While it might be tempting to save time by skipping some brushing sessions, this can really be detrimental to our long-term oral health. (Also, remember that whether it’s fresh or stinky, you will be the one who is stuck smelling your breath in that mask!).