Bad breath, also called halitosis, can be embarrassing and in some cases may even cause anxiety. It’s no wonder that store shelves are overflowing with gum, mints, mouthwashes and other products designed to fight bad breath. But many of these products are only temporary measures because they don’t address the cause of the problem.
Certain foods, health conditions, and habits are among the causes of bad breath. In many cases, you can improve bad breath with consistent proper dental hygiene. If simple self-care techniques don’t solve the problem, see your dentist or physician to be sure a more serious condition isn’t causing your bad breath.
Bad breath odors vary, depending on the source or the underlying cause. Some people worry too much about their breath even though they have little or no mouth odor, while others have bad breath and don’t know it. Because it’s difficult to assess how your own breath smells, ask a close friend or relative to confirm your bad-breath questions.
When to see a doctor?
If you have bad breath, review your oral hygiene habits. Try making lifestyle changes, such as brushing your teeth and tongue after eating, using dental floss, and drinking plenty of water.
If your bad breath persists after making such changes, see your dentist. If your dentist suspects a more serious condition is causing your bad breath, he or she may refer you to a physician to find the cause of the odor.
Causes of Bad Breath
General Oral Health
Most bad breath is caused by poor oral hygiene. If you don’t clean your teeth and your whole mouth regularly, food particles can remain in your mouth and a sticky buildup of bacteria (also known as plaque) can form on your teeth. The uneven surface of your tongue, as well as your tonsils, can trap food particles and bacteria in the mouth which produce bad breath odor. Poor oral hygiene also causes other oral health conditions such as cavities and gum disease which are also associated with bad breath. Keeping a consistent and thorough oral care routine is the best defense against bad breath.
Eating Flavorful Food & Drink
After eating certain foods—like onions, garlic, certain vegetables, and spices—odor-causing food particles enter the bloodstream and are carried to the lungs, where they affect the odor of your breath each time you exhale.
If you’re a big fan of a strong cup of coffee in the morning to start your day, you may have noticed that it can leave you feeling like you have bad breath. Coffee can be a cause of bad breath due to its intense flavor as well as the effect it has on saliva production. After drinking coffee, the caffeine leads to a decline in saliva production. Less saliva means an increase in odor-causing bacteria.
Alcohol consumption is another culprit of bad breath, so the more often you drink – the more likely you are to experience it. Drinking alcohol, particularly in excess, causes a decrease in saliva production, which is the best environment for odor-causing bacteria to flourish.
In addition to adventurous or spicy foods, diets that are high in sugar and protein can also result in bad breath. A diet high in sugar can lead to bad breath and could be the culprit for halitosis due to how sugars interact with the existing bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria that naturally exist in your mouth feed on sugars turning sweet treats into sour smells.
High-Protein or Low-Carb Diets
Carbohydrates serve crucial functions in our bodies, and if your diet is low enough in carbs, it can lead to bad breath. When the body doesn’t get enough carbs due to an extreme diet, this can cause changes to your body’s metabolism which can lead to bad breath.
High-protein foods are sometimes difficult for your body to digest and tend to release sulfurous gases when they don’t metabolize. Avoid this by eating a more balanced and nutritious diet including more vegetables and herbs.
Tobacco products—whether it’s cigarettes, chew, or pipe—all cause bad breath and lead to much more serious oral health issues. Apart from leaving your mouth smelling like an ashtray, they damage the gum tissue and cause gum disease.
Poor digestion, constipation, or bowel disorders can all cause unfortunate odor on the breath. If you frequently experience acid reflux, the odors from recently consumed foods may easily make their way back up the esophagus and out the mouth, causing bad breath.
Saliva helps keep your mouth clean by removing food particles that lead to bad breath. When the production of saliva slackens or stops, a condition known as xerostomia, bad breath is likely to follow. This happens naturally while you sleep, which is why most people find their breath to be a bit stinky upon waking up. But if the problem persists throughout the day, treatment may be worth considering.
Hundreds of prescription medications come with the side effect of dry mouth. When your mouth is dry, when saliva production decreases, the environment for odor-causing bacteria thrives. Any extended period of time with a cotton mouth can cause discomfort and lead to halitosis. Additionally, some medications, when broken down in the body, release chemicals that can be carried through your bloodstream to your breath.
Although most halitosis is caused by odor-causing bacteria, there are a number of other health conditions that may be contributing to the problem. Halitosis can be a warning sign that other diseases or illnesses are present. Postnasal drip, respiratory and tonsil infections, sinus problems, diabetes, liver and kidney issues, as well as certain blood disorders can all cause halitosis. In some rarer cases, halitosis could be a sign of cancer or other serious conditions like metabolic disorders.
How can I remove halitosis?
It’s easy to improve your breath and keep your teeth and gums healthy at the same time. Try these simple steps to make your mouth feel fresh and clean.
1. Brush and floss more often.
Plaque, the sticky buildup on your teeth, collects bacteria that cause halitosis. Trapped food also adds to the problem.
Brush your teeth at least two times each day, and floss at least once. If you’re concerned about your breath, do both a little more often.
Don’t overdo things, though. If you brush too hard you can wear down your teeth, making them vulnerable to decay.
2. Rinse your mouth out.
Besides freshening your breath, a mouthwash adds extra protection by getting rid of bacteria. A fresh minty taste can make you feel good. But be sure the mouthwash you choose kills the germs that cause halitosis. Don’t just cover up the smell. Rinse daily with a good mouthwash and stop bad breath at its source.
You can also help your breath if you swish your mouth with plain water after you eat. It can get rid of food particles that get stuck in your teeth.
3. Scrape your tongue.
The coating that normally forms on your tongue can be a host for smelly bacteria. To get rid of them, gently brush your tongue with your toothbrush.
If your brush is too big to comfortably reach the back of your tongue, try a scraper. “They’re designed specifically to apply even pressure across the surface of the tongue area. This removes bacteria, food debris, and dead cells that brushing alone can’t take care of,” says hygienist Pamela L. Quinones, past president of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
4. Avoid foods that sour your breath.
Onions and garlic are big offenders. But brushing after you eat them doesn’t help.
The substances that cause their bad smells make their way into your bloodstream and travel to your lungs, where you breathe them out, says dentist Richard Price, DMD, a spokesperson for the American Dental Association.
The best way to stop the problem? Don’t eat them, or at least avoid them before you go to work or see friends.
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