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The social media platform TikTok has helped spread yet another potentially dangerous idea: taping your lips shut to stop mouth breathing at night.
“If you have obstructive sleep apnea, yes, this can be very dangerous,” said sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
Obstructive sleep apnea, which is the complete or partial collapse of the airway, is one of the most common and dangerous sleep disorders: Over 1 billion people between the ages of 30 and 69 are thought to have the condition, according to a 2019 study published in the journal Lancet Respiratory Medicine. Millions more are undiagnosed, experts say.
“There is limited evidence on the benefits of mouth taping and I would be very careful — and even talk to your health care provider before attempting it,” Dasgupta added.
Yet none of the TikTok videos CNN viewed mentioned the practice might be harmful in any way.
One young woman touts the benefits of beauty sleep as the reason to imprison her lips each night.
“I tape my mouth shut every single day. … Sleeping properly is really important to anti-aging and looking and feeling your best.”
Despite the downsides of painfully losing facial hair or damaging soft tissue around the mouth, another TikTok video recommends “regular old paper tape.”
“I know there’s lots of fancy mouth-taping tapes on the market but you don’t need it. You just need this little square right here across the lip.”
All of this could be written off as silly, except one video appears to breed another as people pick up the challenge. One woman couldn’t even recall why she started taping her mouth at night:
“Truth be told, I don’t know. I saw on TikTok and I can’t remember what the benefits were. But it helps me stay asleep!”
Dangers of mouth breathing
As with many things “discovered” by TikTok presenters, mouth taping isn’t new. People have been searching for years for ways to shut their mouth at night, and with good reason. Mouth breathing can lead to snoring and excessive thirst at night, as well as dry mouth and bad breath in the morning. Over time, breathing this way is linked to gum disease and malocclusion, where the upper and lower teeth don’t align.
In childhood, when the tendency to breathe via the mouth often starts, the condition can lead the child to develop a “mouth breathing face” — a narrowed face with receding chin or jaw, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Children are also at risk for developing obstructive sleep apnea, which has been linked to learning difficulties and behavioral problems in childhood.
Journalist James Nestor allowed scientists to stop up his nose with silicone and surgical tape for 10 days in order to see just what mouth breathing would do to his health. As he described in his book “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” the impact was shockingly fast. He developed obstructive sleep apnea, his blood pressure, pulse and heart rate shot up and his blood oxygen levels plummeted, sending his brain into a murky fog.
“We had no idea it was going to be that bad,” Nestor told CNN in 2020. “The snoring and sleep apnea was so dramatic, and it came on so quickly, that everyone was pretty floored.”
Why nose breathing is best
Breathing via the nostrils is healthier, experts say. Fine hairs in your nose called cilia filter out dust, allergens, germs and environmental debris. Nose breathing also moisturizes incoming air, while dry air breathed in through the mouth can irritate the lungs, Dasgupta said.
“Nasal breathing may lower blood pressure by increasing nitride oxide, a compound in your body that can be helpful for keeping your blood pressure under control,” he added.
In addition, breathing through the nose is relaxing, which is why it is often recommended, along with yoga and meditation, as a way to promote sleep.
Check first for sleep apnea
If, however, you decide you do want to give mouth taping a try, don’t tape your mouth horizontally like you’re the hostage of a serial killer — even TikTok users stress that. Just a bit of tape placed vertically over the lips is supposed to work.
One small March study, however, found people who did that just replaced mouth breathing with “mouth puffing,” in which the research participants puffed air in and out of their mouths on each side of the tape.
Overall, the “most important message” is to first be evaluated for obstructive sleep apnea before you try sleeping with your mouth taped, Dasgupta said.
“Once obstructive sleep apnea is ruled out completely, then we can call it snoring,” he said. “Also, there are many other options to address snoring beside mouth taping such as nasal strips, nasal dilators and mouth (and) throat and tongue exercises.”
Avoid sleeping on your back as well, a position that encourages the mouth to fall open and the tongue to fall back into the throat. Pushing air past that blockage is what causes snoring.
Mouth breathing is often linked to allergies, colds and chronic nasal congestion. A deviated septum, which is the cartilage that separates your nostrils can also be a cause — a crooked septum can block your airway. Nasal polyps can do the same, Dasgupta said.
Children may have enlarged adenoids, glands behind the nose that are designed to ward off bacteria and viruses. They shrink with age, so this is not a common cause of mouth breathing for adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
All of these underlying medical issues can be handled by a visit to an ear, nose and throat doctor or a sleep specialist who can create a personalized treatment plan for you.
“These issues should be addressed and evaluated first before mouth taping. In my opinion taping your mouth shut is not likely to help you sleep better,” Dasgupta said.
Additional reporting by CNN contributor Jen Rose Smith.