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A breath of unfresh air: Getting a handle on halitosis

A smiling woman stands on a rooftop

Possible reasons for bad breath, and simple steps that can help.

Ever get the feeling that people don't want to listen to you? Not because of what you have to say, but because of how you smell when you say it?

Perhaps your friends are too polite to say you stink. Or at least your breath does.

Everyone gets bad breath occasionally—for example, after polishing off a plate of garlic-laden food at an Italian restaurant.

But the causes of bad breath, which doctors sometimes call halitosis, go beyond menu choices.

According to the American Dental Association (ADA), common reasons for bad breath include:

  • Foods that have a strong odor, such as garlic or onions.
  • Not brushing and flossing your teeth well or often enough.
  • Smoking or chewing tobacco.
  • Some medications.
  • Sinus infection and postnasal drip.

It's not your mouth, it's your lungs

When you eat smelly foods such as garlic, the odor is absorbed into your blood and goes to the lungs, where it comes out on your breath. Mouthwash and toothpaste may disguise the smell for a while, but it won't really go away until your body is done processing the food.

If you really want to keep your breath smelling fresh, avoid the foods that make it smelly. Or at least stay away from those items on first dates.

Do what mom said

Brush your teeth regularly. Floss too. Pieces of food that stick to your teeth collect bacteria, which also cause bad breath. Food that stays in your mouth can actually rot, adding to the unpleasantness.

The same goes for dentures that aren't cleaned well, says the ADA.

You should brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste. Floss once a day. If you wear dentures, take them out at night and clean them carefully before using them in the morning.

Mouthwash is a whitewash

The ADA says that mouthwash only disguises bad breath. If you need to use mouthwash all the time, see your dentist.

Watch out for gum disease

Not taking care of your teeth can lead to gum disease, which can cause bad breath too. Bad breath that persists along with a bad taste in your mouth can be a sign of gum disease (also called periodontal disease).

Gum disease starts when plaque, a sticky, colorless bacteria, builds up on your teeth, says the ADA. As plaque spreads, it can irritate and damage your gums. Ultimately, gum disease can destroy the bones and other structures that hold in your teeth.

If you see a dentist regularly, he or she will be able to spot early signs of gum disease. Preventing serious problems means taking better care of your teeth.

Dealing with dry mouth

A mouth that's too dry can also give you bad breath. Medications, problems with the glands that create saliva, or breathing through your mouth a lot can dry out your mouth. Without enough saliva, food particles that cause odor won't be washed off your teeth.

A dentist can recommend ways to keep your mouth moist. There are products that play the role of saliva and help moisten the mouth. There are also sugarless candies that can help. The dentist will also probably recommend drinking more fluids, the ADA says.

Other problems

If your mouth looks OK, your dentist may tell you to see your doctor. Persistent bad breath can be a sign of a medical condition or problem, such as sinus infection, chronic bronchitis, diabetes, stomach problems, or liver or kidney disease.

If you think your bad breath goes beyond garlic, get it checked out.

Reviewed 8/8/2022

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