Nose breath­ing has more ben­e­fits than mouth breath­ing

The Saline Courier Weekend - - OPINION - DR. GLAZIER

Dear Doc­tor:

I pre­fer to breathe through my mouth at all times. This is due to fairly con­stant nasal con­ges­tion. Am I get­ting the same amount of oxy­gen as breath­ing through my nose?

Dear Reader: The an­swer is ac­tu­ally a bit more com­plex than a sim­ple yes or no. Yes, the same amount of oxy­gen reaches your lungs whether you’re breath­ing in through your nose or your mouth. But some­thing dif­fer­ent hap­pens to that oxy­gen when you breathe in through your nose, which doesn’t hap­pen when you breathe through your mouth.

Breath­ing through the nose warms, fil­ters and hu­mid­i­fies the air. Each of these is im­por­tant to the health of the del­i­cate tis­sues of the nose, lower air­ways and lungs.

Nose breath­ing has an­other ben­e­fi­cial ef­fect on oxy­gen once it reaches the lungs, which doesn’t hap­pen with mouth breath­ing. This is due to nitric ox­ide, a col­or­less and odor­less gas. It’s pro­duced through­out the body, in­clud­ing by the paranasal si­nuses, which are the group of air-filled spa­ces in the fore­head and around the nasal cav­ity. When you breathe through your nose, the nitric ox­ide in the paranasal si­nuses fol­lows the in­hala­tion through the air­ways, down into the lungs and into the mil­lions of mi­cro­scopic sacs, known as alve­oli, that sup­ply the blood with oxy­gen. Re­search has shown that nitric ox­ide plays an im­por­tant role in in­creas­ing blood oxy­gen and im­prov­ing oxy­gen ab­sorp­tion by the lungs. Nitric ox­ide is also a va­sodila­tor, which means that it in­creases blood flow and low­ers blood pres­sure.

When you breathe through your mouth, the oxy­gen con­tained within that in­hala­tion reaches the lungs. How­ever, it gets there with­out the added health ben­e­fits of nitric ox­ide. It also gets there with­out the warm­ing, added hu­mid­ity or fil­tra­tion pro­vided by the nose. These all oc­cur be­cause a thin layer of moist tis­sue, known as the mu­cous mem­brane, lines the nose. The sticky sur­face of that mem­brane -- the mu­cus -- is quite ef­fi­cient at cap­tur­ing airborne par­ti­cles and pre­vent­ing them from get­ting into the lungs. The mu­cous mem­brane also con­tains spe­cial­ized im­mune cells and en­zymes to neu­tral­ize po­ten­tial pathogens. And it’s lined with tiny hair­like struc­tures, called cilia. These cilia con­stantly wave and beat and move mu­cus, along with de­bris trapped within it, away from the lungs and down into the throat for re­moval.

We think it’s im­por­tant for you to learn the rea­son for your on­go­ing nasal con­ges­tion. It may be due to al­ler­gies or in­fec­tion; it could be a struc­tural prob­lem, like a de­vi­ated sep­tum; or it could arise from a block­age, as from polyps. The good news is that al­ler­gies re­spond well to med­i­ca­tion, and anatom­i­cal block­ages can be sur­gi­cally cor­rected. Some­thing as sim­ple as those nasal strips, which help keep the nasal canal open, can bring re­lief. We think it would be wise for you to see your fam­ily’s health care provider to learn and ad­dress the un­der­ly­ing cause for your on­go­ing nasal con­ges­tion.

Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an in­ternist and as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of medicine at UCLA Health. El­iz­a­beth Ko, M.D., is an in­ternist and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of medicine at UCLA Health.

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