Bad breath happens to all of us. It even has a scientific name: halitosis. Bad breath occurs when bacteria breed on the tongue, teeth and in the oral cavity. When bacteria in our mouth break down the proteins in our food it creates a sort of sulfuric type of odor.
But for some people, stinky breath is more than just a periodic nuisance that strikes first thing in the morning or after a garlicky meal. It may be a constant source of embarrassment or distress. In rare cases, it may even signal a brewing health condition.
17 Reasons Why Your Breath Smells Bad
Having bad breath is kind of like getting toilet paper stuck to the bottom of your foot: usually harmless, but so awkward that nobody will tell you about it. The good news: It’s is usually temporary. The bad news: It’s often caused by a less-than-stellar brushing and flossing routine—as well as a bunch of other foods and habits too. Here are 17 reasons why your breath smells bad.
You just woke up
Yep, morning breath is pretty much a given, but here’s why it happens: While you’re sleeping peacefully, the bacteria in your mouth are anything but. The bugs take advantage of the fact that your production of saliva slows way down during sleep—and since your saliva helps “clean” your mouth, your breath might have a bad odor until you brush your teeth the next morning. Morning breath is totally normal, but some researchers refer to it as “morning halitosis.”
You’re breathing through your mouth
Mouth-breathing may make your saliva evaporate, which can dry out your mouth and reduce your mouth’s ability to rinse away food particles. Some people breathe through their mouths while they sleep, but many people often do it during exercise as well. That’s not a reason to stop exercising, of course. Just make sure you stay hydrated during a workout and replenish your fluids afterwards.
You ate some smelly food
Garlic and onions are two famous offenders, but other culprits include spices, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and radishes. And even though the pungent scent of those foods might fade away after an hour or two, it can still come back up again—in one big garlicy burp. And bad breath from food can occasionally stem from the GI tract, not just your mouth. When you digest food, the chemicals are eventually absorbed into your bloodstream and enter your lungs, where you can expel them later.
Or you haven’t eaten all day
Skipping meals is a surefire way to have bad breath. That’s because when we don’t eat, we don’t produce as much saliva. Why’s that important? Because saliva doesn’t just clean up food particles, it also breaks down that food to help it slide down our throats more easily.
Add halitosis to the list of health conditions that can be caused by cigarettes. Unsurprisingly, smoking not only increases the amount of odor-producing compounds in a person’s mouth and lungs, but the habit can also dry out your mouth, leading to lower saliva production
You’re taking a medication that dries out your mouth
Certain meds—like some antihistamines, diuretics, antipsychotics, and muscle relaxants—can cause side effects that include dry mouth. And that, in turn, can reduce the amount of saliva your mouth produces and how much bacteria will continue to camp out there.
Since you can’t do anything about your medication regimen, try cleaning your tongue with either a toothbrush or a tongue scraper. Your tongue harbors most of the bacteria that cause smelly breath, and scraping it off the surface may halt bad breath, at least temporarily.
You have post-nasal drip
The mucus in your nose helps filter all the foreign particles that you breathe in from the environment—a good thing. But what happens when that mucus starts building up in the back of your throat because you have terrible pollen allergies or a nasty cold? Those foreign particles eventually travel into your mouth, settle on the surface of your tongue, and in turn trigger bad breath. As if a sore throat wasn’t bad enough.
You’re on a low-carb diet
People who slash their carbohydrate intake have been known to report increased levels of halitosis.
You have a cavity or two
Your mom has already warned you that a buildup of plaque can erode your teeth, leaving you with cavities. And while poor oral hygiene certainly contributes to bad breath, those “holes” may also trigger halitosis indirectly, too : Food can get caught in the cavities, and since cavities can be hard to clean, the remnants of your last meal can linger there for longer-than-usual periods of time, which can then lead to more bad breath.
You wear a dental appliance
We’re not just talking about braces—orthodontic appliances like dentures and fixed bridges can be difficult to maintain too. But it’s important that you clean them every day, as they’re also prime magnets for food particles, which can become lodged in the material.
You get heartburn
The overwhelming majority of halitosis cases are caused by the bacteria in a person’s mouth—but researchers also suspect that in a minority of people, bad breath is triggered by a GI disorder like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), in which the contents of a person’s stomach leak back up into the esophagus.
Myths about bad breath
There are lots of myths about taking care of bad breath. Here are three things you may have heard about bad breath that are not true:
Mouthwash will make bad breath go away
Mouthwash only gets rid of bad breath temporarily. If you do use mouthwash, look for an antiseptic (kills the germs that cause bad breath) and plaque-reducing one. When you’re deciding which dental products to toss into your shopping cart, it’s always a good idea to ask your dentist for recommendations.
As long as you brush your teeth, you shouldn’t have bad breath
The truth is that most people only brush their teeth for 30 to 45 seconds, which just doesn’t cut it. To sufficiently clean all the surfaces of your teeth, you should brush for at least 2 minutes at least twice a day. Remember to brush your tongue, too — bacteria love to hang out there. It’s equally important to floss because brushing alone won’t remove harmful plaque and food particles that become stuck between your teeth and gums.
If you breathe into your hand, you’ll know when you have bad breath
Wrong! When you breathe, you don’t use your throat the same way you do when you talk. When you talk, you tend to bring out the odors from the back of your mouth (where bad breath originates), which simply breathing doesn’t do. Also, because we tend to get used to our own smells, it’s hard for a person to tell if he or she has bad breath.
If you’re concerned about bad breath, make sure you’re taking care of your teeth and mouth properly. Some sugar-free gums and mints can temporarily mask odors, too.
Symptoms and diagnosis
One way to determine if you have bad breath is to ask someone who you trust to be honest and tell you if you have bad breath. You can also ask your dentist next time you have a check-up. A more private method to determine if you have bad breath is to lick your wrist, wait for the saliva to dry, and then smell the area. Scraping the back of your tongue with a spoon and then smelling the spoon is another method of self-testing for bad breath. You should see a dentist if you have the following signs or symptoms:
- Bad breath that does not go away after treating it yourself for a few weeks
- Gums that are painful, bleeding, or swollen
- Toothache(Why do I have toothache and how can I treat it?) or adult teeth that are loose
- Problems with your dentures.
A dentist will be able to say whether you have bad breath and might rate its intensity on a scale after smelling the breath from your mouth and from your nose. They may also rate the intensity of odor from a tongue scraping or length of dental floss. Some dentists have detectors that can identify specific chemicals responsible for bad breath.
Because problems inside the mouth are the most common causes of bad breath, a dentist will check your teeth, tongue, and gums and may also take X-rays. If a dentist is unable to find the cause of bad breath inside your mouth, they will suggest that you see your doctor.
To look for other causes of bad breath, a dentist will ask about other symptoms and do a physical examination. They might also do blood tests and examine the inside of your nose, throat, oesophagus, and stomach.
Resolving Bad Breath
Whether you wake up with dragon breath or sense a stench coming from your mouth several times a day, halitosis can usually be treated quickly and easily by maintaining good oral health. Here are five things you can do to keep bad breath at bay:
- Brush frequently: Brushing physically removes some of the bacteria that cause bad breath. Brush your teeth (gently) at least twice a day or after meals, for at least 2 minutes, with a soft-bristled toothbrush and using a fluoride toothpaste.
- Floss: or use interdental brushes at least once a day to clean between your teeth
- tongue scrapper: Use a tongue scrapper once a day to clean your tongue
- Chang your toothbrush every 3–4 months
- Avoid tobacco: Smoking and chewing tobacco can create bad odors that are tough to eliminate.
- Stay hydrated: Since dry mouth can lead to bad breath, it’s important to drink enough water.
- Use mouthwash: Alcohol-free mouthwashes can help kill bacteria and neutralize the odors that cause bad breath without causing dryness.
- Visit your dentist: About 80 to 90% of the causes behind bad breath relate to the mouth. Maybe your mouth guard hasn’t been cleaned properly, your teeth aren’t sitting correctly in your mouth or your dentures don’t fit. In each of those cases, a dentist can help resolve your dilemma. Visit a dentist regularly, at least once per year.
- Gum disease: Your dentist may treat the gum disease. Or he or she may refer you to an oral specialist (periodontist). Cleaning by a periodontist often helps to remove the bacteria, tartar, and plaque that have built up. This will ease the inflammation at the gum line.
- Plaque buildup: Your dentist or periodontist may tell you to use an antimicrobial mouth rinse. You may also be told to brush your tongue gently each time you brush your teeth. This will help remove odor-causing bacteria.
- Keep dentures clean and removing them at night before sleeping
- Keep dental retainers, night guards, and mouth guards clean
- Use antibacterial mouth rinse or toothpaste. Consider alcohol-free mouth rinse if mouth dryness is an issue for you.
- Avoid sugary drinks and foods and other foods that cause bad breath
- Decrease alcohol intake.
What can I do to prevent halitosis?
Halitosis can be prevented or decreased if you:
- Brush your tongue, cheeks, and the roof of your mouth. Most bad breath bacteria live on the tongue. So brushing or scraping the tongue can make a big difference in your breath.
- Keep your saliva flowing by eating healthy foods that make you chew. Carrots and apples need a lot of saliva. You can also chew sugar-free gum or suck on sugar-free candies. If you still don?t have enough saliva to keep your mouth moist, your dentist may suggest artificial saliva.
Flossing as Prevention for Bad Breath
Need another reason to floss your teeth at least once a day? Flossing daily helps improve bad breath by effectively removing the food particles and bacteria that contribute to it. That makes flossing one of the easiest ways to prevent and banish bad breath.
Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is more common than many people realize. You may joke about bad breath, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, but it’s an important oral health issue. Bad breath can be more than an embarrassing social problem—it can be a sign of disease or illness.