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Mouth taping and sleep apnea: shut your mouth about shutting your mouth

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By: Tim Smithies and Dr Ian Dunican

Taping your mouth at night is not going to tape over your problem with obstructive sleep apnea.

Mouth taping has become quite the trend on TikTok and popular media outlets in 2022. It is said to alleviate the harmful effects of mouth breathing during sleep, such as snoring, bad breath and dry mouth. Mouth breathing at night is a significant issue linked to developmental and behavioural problems in children and an increased risk of Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA). The proposed function of mouth taping is obvious – if your mouth is taped shut, you cannot breathe with your mouth wide open when you sleep. This would (hopefully!) force you to breathe through your nose during sleep, alleviating any issues associated with mouth breathing. Many social media saviours would tell you that this is the key to a restful night’s sleep.

On the surface, mouth taping sounds like a viable option for people with OSA, especially as people with OSA are more likely to mouth breathe, and mouth breathing is more likely to lead to the collapsing of airways (the cause of OSA). Early research on the efficacy of mouth taping for OSA patients looked promising. A pilot study on 30 participants with mild OSA found that compared to their habitual sleep, mouth taping caused reductions in sleepiness, snoring, dry mouth, and apnea/ hypopnea index (a measure for OSA severity) (Huang and Young, 2015). However, if we look closer at this study, there is a crucial detail that we need to consider. Before inclusion, all participants were subject to a “fibreoptic nasopharyngolaryngoscopy.” In simple terms, all participants were checked to ensure they had an “adequate nasal airway” for breathing through their nose.

This raises a fundamental question that should be considered before ever thinking about taping your mouth shut; if mouth breathing is a contributing factor to your OSA, why are you mouth breathing? According to Healthline, mouth breathing is caused by a partial or complete nasal blockage; this could be from nasal congestion, enlarged tonsils/ adenoids, or even just nose shape. If you are mouth breathing because of a nasal blockage, it should be self-evident that taping your mouth closed to lessen mouth breathing is not the best idea. However, there are products specifically designed for mouth taping (i.e. SomniFix Mouth Strips) that don’t limit your ability to mouth breathe. So, if done correctly, mouth taping should not be dangerous. It goes without saying though that if you are mouth breathing, your first cause of action should be to address why, rather than taping over the issue.

What about if OSA is why you are mouth breathing? When someone experiences a sleep apnea episode (i.e., collapsed airway and resultant lack of oxygen intake), a panicked ‘gasp’ for air through the mouth occurs. This mouth breathing is akin to breathing through your mouth during and after intense exercise; your body is trying to take in oxygen in the fastest route possible. If this occurs recurrently through the night (as is the case for patients with severe OSA), they will naturally experience the negative symptoms of mouth breathing and the effects of OSA. So, again, cutting off the pathway to receive the most amount of oxygen in this circumstance sounds like (and is) a bad idea. Also, Jau and colleagues (2022) recently found that when patients with more severe OSA slept with their mouth taped; they experience ‘mouth puffing’, whereby the individual puffs their mouth in an attempt to exhale. As the authors put it, “mouth taping can prevent patients with OSA from inhaling with the mouth but cannot prevent patients from exhaling with the mouth.”

Mouth taping could be a supplementary technique to help alleviate symptoms for individuals with mild OSA (we stress the could; only one pilot study performed seven years ago and with no replication since has shown a benefit of mouth taping for OSA), given one important detail. The individual is mouth breathing at night, and a nasal blockage does not cause this. Until this is known, we would not advise the use of mouth taping to alleviate symptoms of OSA. Even if this is the case, many other methods with greater scientific backing should be the first point of call. Reducing weight (particularly for the 41% of OSA patients that are overweight or obese; Young, Peppard and Taheri, 2005), avoiding alcohol, avoid sleeping on your back (supine sleep apnea) and taking certain sleeping medications before bedtime would be the best first steps. While CPAP machines can be uncomfortable for some, they are the gold standard for OSA treatment. These treatments/ preventions should be exhausted long before you search for a miracle in a piece of tape over your mouth.

At Melius Consulting and Sleep4Performance, we support businesses and athletes in identifying, treating, and reducing such sleep disorders. One such project was nominated for a health and safety award with a major mining company that resulted in a 51% reduction in fatigue events; read more here.

Hope you enjoyed this article; sleep well!!!!

 

References

  • Huang, T. W., & Young, T. H. (2015). Novel porous oral patches for patients with mild obstructive sleep apnea and mouth breathing: A pilot study. Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery, 152(2), 369-373. DOI: 10.1177/0194599814559383
  • Cafasso, J. (2019, 15/07/2022). Mouth Breathing: Symptoms, Complications, and Treatments. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/mouth-breathing#_noHeaderPrefixedContent
  • Somnifix. (2022). SomniFix Mouth Strips. Somnifix. Retrieved from https://somnifix.com/products/mouth-strips-snoring-sleep-aids
  • Jau, J. Y., Kuo, T. B., Li, L. P., Chen, T. Y., Lai, C. T., Huang, P. H., & Yang, C. C. (2022). Mouth puffing phenomena of patients with obstructive sleep apnea when mouth-taped: device’s efficacy confirmed with physical video observation. Sleep and Breathing, 1-12. DOI: 10.1007/s11325-022-02588-0
  • Young, T., Peppard, P. E., & Taheri, S. (2005). Excess weight and sleep-disordered breathing. Journal of applied physiology, 99(4), 1592-1599. DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00587.2005

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