We identify what causes—and how to get rid of—bad breath.
No one’s keen to send out sulfur breath at a morning meeting or greet her beloved with a blast of morning breath. You brush, you rinse. So, why the stink? And more importantly, how can you get rid of bad breath?
“There are basically two causes of bad breath,” says Richard Price, DMD, an advisor spokesperson for the American Dental Association. “If food smells bad going in, it will smell bad going out: Onions, garlic, tobacco, alcohol. Even if you rub garlic on the soles of your feet, a couple hours later it will show up on your breath after it travels through your bloodstream.”
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But the major cause of bad breath is bacteria living on the back of your tongue. “It produces sulfur compounds that give off a rotten egg smell,” says Price. Add post-nasal drip, and now the bacteria are covered by a layer of mucus, says Price.
Medical conditions such as gum disease, dental infections, gastric reflux (heartburn), and xerostomia, more simply known as dry mouth, can also cause bad breath, adds Amanda Seay, DDS, a dentist in private practice in Charleston, South Carolina. Cancers and metabolic disorders such as diabetes can also stir up odor because of chemicals they release. Mouth-drying medications such as antidepressants, antihistamines, and diuretics can also cause bad breath, she adds.
However your foul fragrance arrives, here are ways to clear it up.
Know you’ve got the problem. Aside from just too many wrinkled noses in your vicinity, how do you know you’ve got a problem? “Go to any 5-year old, breathe, and ask her,” suggests Price. “She’ll tell you. Or ask your spouse, or the dentist.”
Seay suggests swiping some saliva from the back of your throat (where bacteria loves to live), rubbing a swatch on the back of your hand, and taking a whiff when it dries. “If it smells, chances are you have bad breath,” she says.
Telling your best friend or spouse that they have dragon breath is a dicier matter. “The easiest way is to offer someone a stick of gum,” says Seay. “You just have to feel out an opportunity.” Or tell the family dentist and let her do the dirty work.
Disperse the bacteria. “Bacteria will collect anywhere it can stagnate between the teeth and on the tongue,” says Price. “Scrape the bacteria off your tongue, particularly the back of the tongue, using a tongue scraper. Do it first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and you can wake up without dragon breath.”
You can use a toothbrush or even a spoon, says Price, but tongue scrapers are easy to find at any drugstore or online for about $5 or less.
Wet the whistle. “A swiftly running stream doesn’t gather debris,” says Price. “The less saliva you have, the fewer bacteria are carried away.” If medications contribute to your dry mouth, ask your doctor about more mouth-watering alternatives such as dry mouth sprays, solutions or lozenges.
Keep your mouth healthy. “Brush twice a day, morning and night, floss, and use mouthwash,” says Seay. If your mouth is healthy, see your dentist at least twice a year. “But if you have gum disease or are at high risk for tooth decay, you should see the dentist more often, perhaps every three to four months,” says Seay.
One warning: Many mouthwashes only mask odor. Try to find those with chlorine dioxide or zinc chloride that will help neutralize the smelly sulfur compounds produced by bacteria, says Price.
Make like Bugs Bunny. Raw, crunchy fruits and vegetables like carrots and apples increase saliva flow, says Price. “And they remove plaque, or build-up of bacteria.”
Eat some yogurt. Reach for yogurt as an afternoon snack—or anytime, says Seay: “It has good bacteria that promote more health in the mouth.” A 2008 Japanese study at Kyushu University found that eating three ounces of sugar-free yogurt with probiotic—“good”—bacteria twice a day for six months reduced bad breath by lowering the levels of sulfur compounds. A yogurt container will say if it contains live, healthy bacteria, or probiotics.
Ask your dentist or doctor to help. Still worried? Visit your dentist and tell him about your breath woes. “Have him confirm your bad breath and make sure that your mouth is healthy,” says Price. If medications are drying your mouth, ask your doctor if you can try a different medication. And if a medical condition like gastric reflux is causing your odor, ask the doctor to help you address its cause, says Seay.