Wearing a face mask is an important part of minimizing your risk of transmitting illness. We release hundreds of invisible respiratory droplets every time we speak even a short phrase, and masks can help to contain them so they don’t come in contact with other people or surfaces.
Many people, including those who have to wear masks all day at work and people who are outside their homes for much of the day, are experiencing uncomfortable side effects, including bad breath, cavities, gingivitis or ulcers. Some oral healthcare professionals have dubbed this unique phenomenon “mask mouth.”
What is Mask Mouth?
If you spend a lot of time wearing a face covering and have developed chronic bad-smelling breath and/or an unpleasant taste in your mouth, you are probably experiencing mask mouth. Patients’ chief complaint is typically with their breath and taste, but the condition also could lead to a variety of other dental problems with the teeth and the gums. Though mask mouth is a new problem that many patients are encountering for the first time, it all stems from a very long-standing and relatively common issue: dry mouth.
When people wear masks, they usually breathe through their mouths. We know that repeated mouth breathing dries out the saliva that keeps your mouth moisturized. This might sound like an innocuous problem, but it can actually have significant consequences if left untreated over a long period. A dry mouth is an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive.
Your saliva acts as a buffer to neutralize acids, raise the pH of the environment in the mouth, protect against bad bacteria, and guard against viruses that contribute to gum disease. The dry mouth you may experience as a result of breathing into your mask can actually weaken your mouth’s defenses and make you more susceptible to cavities and gum inflammation or infection.
Patients who are wearing braces during the pandemic are even more susceptible because bacteria have more surfaces to cling to and hide behind or between. So patients receiving orthodontic treatment are at a higher risk for mask mouth and may experience it at an accelerated rate.
Do not wait to observe the effects of mask mouth to take preventative measures. By the time you notice a persistent smell coming from your mouth, you may already have bacteria build-up or gum disease.
What Can You Do To Prevent Mask Mouth?
The best thing you can do to fight against mask mouth is to strengthen your oral hygiene regimen. In addition to your daily brushing and flossing habits, rinse your mouth with water after each meal, snack or sugary drink, and consider adding an antibacterial mouthwash to your routine. You may also want to start using a scraper to clean your tongue. If you wear braces, these are the best practices you should be employing anyway.
Although you might have gotten used to staying home, don’t skip your regularly scheduled dental appointments. It is always important to make it to your routine cleanings, and even more so if you are experiencing symptoms of mask mouth and/or are wearing braces. Schedule an appointment even sooner if you believe your symptoms might be caused by gum disease. Symptoms of gum disease include bad breath that won’t go away, gums that are red, swollen, tender or bleeding, and painful chewing or sensitive teeth.
The foods you eat also can contribute to bad breath, and wearing a mask right after eating certain meals can make bad breath even worse. In particular, avoid strong-smelling foods like onions and garlic. You might even want to avoid drinking coffee, as it has a strong odor and is known to affect the smell of your breath. If you simply can’t resist your morning brew, then be sure to drink some water after and swish it around in your mouth.
To avoid mask mouth, make sure you are staying hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluids can help to combat the effects of the dry mouth you are experiencing. If you aren’t getting enough fluids, dehydration will only exacerbate problems you might experience. Chewing on gum or mints also will prompt your mouth to create more saliva, but you need to avoid this option if you are wearing braces.
Finally, although it might be uncomfortable, you can avoid many of these unwanted oral effects by breathing through your nose. Your mask must fit snuggly over the top of your nose to create a seal. However, you can try to find a mask with more room under the bridge so that it isn’t pushing against your nasal passages. Some products also are available for purchase that contain a spacing appliance that you can place under your mask, which separates the fabric from your nose and reduces compression.
Preventing mask mouth isn’t limited to caring for your mouth and teeth. Keeping your mask clean can help prevent unwanted oral side effects. If you’re wearing a dirty mask, you could potentially introduce new germs and bacteria in your mouth. Your respiratory particles land in the mask instead of dispersing into the air, and bacteria in those particles can grow on your mask and cause an odor.
If you are wearing a cloth mask, experts recommend that you clean it every two or three days at a minimum. Also avoid putting your mask places where it is likely to contact germs, such as your pocket, your purse or your glove compartment.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, you should always wash your hands before putting on your mask. Avoid touching the part of the mask that touches your face–if you must, then be sure to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer. When putting on or removing your mask, try to handle only the strings behind your head or stretch the ear loops rather than the part that touches your face. Wash your hands again after removing the mask.
Cloth masks can be cleaned using your washing machine using regular laundry detergent and warm water. Place masks in the dryer under the highest heat setting and run it until the masks are completely dry.
If you’d prefer to wash your mask by hand, use bleach containing 5.25%–8.25% sodium hypochlorite or make your own solution with 5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) of 5.25%–8.25% bleach per gallon of room temperature water. If you don’t have a dryer, lay the mask out flat until all moisture is gone, and, if possible, place it outside in the sunlight.