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Updated: Aug 22, 2022

Part of becoming a LifeGuard for your patients is learning to watch for signs and symptoms of airway disorders; both those you can visually see and those you need to listen for when talking with your patients.

dental hygienist finding airway disorder in child

One of the best ways to help spot an airway disorder is to look at facial alignment. Children with airway issues will often exhibit poorly defined cheekbones, crooked teeth, an elongated or narrow face, and a set-back jaw.

physical characteristics of airway disorders

Crooked teeth can also be a signal of something more serious, such as a poorly developed jaw. Additionally, malocclusions are often accompanied by mouth breathing, which is a huge sign of an airway issue in a child.

In fact, mouth breathing, malocclusion, and sleep disorders are often found together in tandem. And, when in children, these symptoms are often misdiagnosed as something other than being due to an airway disorder.


Even though they are the closest to them, parents often miss the signs of airway issues in their children as they don't know what to look for. Identifying a possible airway disorder can be fairly easy when they are taught what signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for.

Signs of airway obstructions in children include:

  • Chronic mouth breathing (both awake and when sleeping)

  • Open or slack-mouth posture

  • Snoring or noisy sleeping every night

  • Frequent night terrors or bed-wetting

  • Chronic nasal discharge or chronic runny nose

  • Dark circles or allergic 'black eyes'

  • Restless, unfulfilling sleep - leaving messy sheets and blankets due to tossing and turning all night

  • Crooked teeth

  • Frequent earaches

  • Falling asleep in school or having 'brain fog' daily

  • Diagnosed as having ADHD or experiencing poor performance in school suddenly

  • Awakening feeling un-refreshed

When meeting with a parent who suspects their child might have an airway or sleep issue, as them the following questions:

  • Does your child sleep the night without issues?

  • How many times does your child chew each bit before swallowing?

  • Does your child have a chronic stuffy or runny nose?

  • When your child swallows, do they display a worried expression?

  • Does your child sleep with an open mouth or snore nightly?

As a LifeGuard it is your responsibility to take time to find these things out with your patients and, if you suspect your patient might have airway issues, you should document their file and alert the dentist before they begin their exam.


When it comes to prevention, there are things parents can do on their own to help protect their children from developing an airway disorder:

  • Breastfeeding an infant for at least 18 months and refrain from using a pacifier until weaning is complete.

  • Wean onto foods that require chewing to help develop strong tongue and jaw muscles (watch closely for choking until the child is older).

  • Monitor sleeping habits and alert an airway dentist if mouth breathing or chronic snoring is discovered.

  • Work with an infant to develop proper posture as they grow.

  • Teach children to chew gum with their mouths closed.

  • If a child starts to mouth breathe, gently close their lips. If they are older, give them a gentle reminder to close their mouth while breathing.

Most of the time, children are unaware that they are breathing through their mouths when they are awake. Training a child to breathe through their nose at a young age can have life-long health benefits for them.

Sometimes treating mouth breathing is a matter of treating an underlying illness that impairs nasal breathing. Treatment for mouth breathing is available and can be beneficial for children if the condition is caught early.

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