The ADHD Misdiagnosis: How Mouth Breathing is Often Mistaken for a Behavioural Disorder

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is the most prevalent psychiatric disorder in children in Canada, according to the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada. Conservative estimates suggest that 5 percent of children are affected, and the number of diagnoses has risen dramatically over the decades along with the number of children being medicated.

Are all of these diagnoses of ADHD valid? Or is it possible that something else can explain what’s going on, and why so many children are labelled ADHD? Today we’re going to look at the connection between ADHD and mouth breathing to see if we can find some answers.

Mouth Breathing: Why It Matters

Mouth breathing is exactly what it sounds like, breathing through the mouth rather than the nose. It’s often caused by an obstruction in the nasal airway. It may not seem like a big deal, but it is.

Mouth breathing can result in a lack of oxygen saturation in the brain. The normal saturation level is 95-100 percent. Studies have shown that people who breathe through their mouths are more likely to have cerebral hypoxia or a reduced supply of oxygen to the brain. This can lead to problems with cognition, memory, and motor control.

In children, mouth breathing is especially worrisome. It’s associated with snoring, teeth grinding, nightmares, night terrors, restless sleep, restless leg syndrome, bedwetting, and problems in school. Parents who notice their children mouth breathing should look for signs of these other issues, too.  

Mouth Breathing Misdiagnosis?

Parents and teachers looking for answers to a child’s undesirable behaviour and may end up finding it in a diagnosis of ADHD and medicate accordingly, most commonly with stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, in children as young as six years old.

Increasingly, more people, including myself, believe that ADHD in some children is a misdiagnosis. After all, is it just a coincidence that more than half of children diagnosed with ADHD are also mouth breathers? I don’t think so. I think that mouth breathing children get a low quality of sleep, which affects their mood, ability to focus, and behaviour at school. This can easily be confused for ADHD.

This hypothesis is strengthened even more when you realize that for many children, once the underlying physical issue is taken care of, and they begin breathing through the nose, the ADHD goes away. These children can then stop taking prescription medication and begin sleeping better at night, which in turn helps with performance in school.

Treating and Making a Difference

It’s exciting to me, as a dentist, to be able to help my young patients alleviate issues like mouth breathing, that have such a wide-reaching effect on their lives. By fixing a problem with the airway passage, I can help them improve the quality of their lives in school and out of it, not to mention ease parents’ worries about their children.

To be clear, I don’t believe that every diagnosed case of ADHD can be eradicated with such intervention. But if you’re a parent whose child is a mouth breather and has been diagnosed with ADHD, it’s worth going to a dentist or orthodontist who has some knowledge and experience in this area to learn more. It could change your child’s life.