Many of us put a good amount of effort into our oral health. Just like we protect and decorate our household products and automobiles with coatings, we often protect our teeth using fluoride treatments, dental floss, toothpaste, and nightguards. But even if you practice adequate dental care most of the time, you might be dealing with a relatively new phenomenon during the pandemic. The safeguards we’ve put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19 may be leading to a condition known by some as “mask mouth.” But is it really that big a deal? And even if it’s just a minor inconvenience, how can your family put a stop to it?

What is Mask Mouth?

Some 4 million Americans are now wearing braces, but you probably won’t be able to tell who has a mouthful of metal these days. Since most of us have been instructed (or have volunteered) to wear protective masks and face coverings while out in public to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, the mouth and nose area of others shouldn’t typically be visible when you’re in a crowded or indoor space.

We now know that wearing masks in these situations is one of the best ways to keep ourselves and others safe. Unfortunately, there are a few pesky side effects that come from wearing a mask for any length of time. Maskne, or mask-related acne, is one such impact that many have experienced; wearing a mask for hours can cause excessive sweating and irritation, which can lead to breakouts.

Another undesirable side effect of mask-wearing is a condition known as “mask mouth.” Although some people are convinced that wearing a mask can lead to infections in the mouth area or increased dental disease, many experts refute this, citing a lack of widespread evidence. However, there’s little doubt that wearing a mask — particularly right after eating or drinking — can redirect your breath (which you’d normally exhale through your nose or mouth) back into your nasal passages. That can make any foul odors seem much more magnified than they would otherwise. Ultimately, it means that you’re noticing your bad breath more due to the mask you wear on your face.

It’s worth noting that wearing a mask may cause you to breathe through your mouth, which can make your mouth dryer as a result. When your mouth is dry, that means your body isn’t producing as much saliva. And since saliva can help cleanse the teeth and keep bacteria at bay, your breath might not smell as fresh under these circumstances.

How Can Mask Mouth Be Prevented?

Most dental professionals feel that, unless dental decay or other issues already exist, mask mouth isn’t an issue that can lead to significant oral care problems. However, that doesn’t mean it should go unaddressed. While a recent survey found that 80% of Americans aged 18 to 49 want whiter teeth, the majority of U.S. residents also want sweet-smelling breath. And it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to be plagued with the odor of their own exhalations all day.

So what can you and your family do to prevent mask mouth? For one thing, you should concentrate on hydration. Whether you’re at home, at work, or out and about, make it a point to drink more water throughout the day. If you’re in a public place, make sure to create appropriate distance between yourself and others (or, even better, go outdoors) before removing your mask to take a drink of water. You should also make use of in-home humidifiers and refrain from dehydrating behaviors, such as drinking or smoking. Some dentists are even recommending the use of sugar-free mints, as they can keep your mouth moist and smelling minty while wearing a mask. You can also end a meal with an apple or some crunchy veggies, like carrot sticks or radishes, as these can help to remove plaque and encourage saliva production until you can brush your teeth.

Of course, you can’t forget about proper oral care. Before you leave the house or finish your lunch break, be sure to brush your teeth, scrape your tongue, and use some alcohol-free mouthwash. Daily brushing and flossing will also be highly beneficial, as these habits can remove plaque and eliminate bad breath. If you’ve been neglecting your oral hygiene habits or haven’t seen your dentist lately due to the pandemic, now’s the time to make an appointment and to get back into your regular routine. If you have younger kids or even teenagers at home, be sure to model good oral hygiene behaviors and remind them to be diligent about their own habits.

In the end, mask mouth isn’t an indicator of a huge problem — nor is it caused by the mask itself. But if you don’t address the underlying causes of bad breath, your family might face some more significant dental issues down the line. If any of us have learned anything during the pandemic, it’s that our health is the most important thing we have. By taking care of ourselves, we can also take care of each other.