Bad Breath

By Dr. Loretta Lanphier, ND, CN, HHP, CH

Ever hear the joke about the guy who was stuck on an airplane between a screaming baby with diarrhea and an octogenarian with bad breath? Well, I guess it’s not funny enough to go into the whole thing, but it is an example of how bad breath is the brunt of many a joke. We take it rather lightly most of the time, and often it is nothing more than a malodorous annoyance. However, as with most issues in our bodies, bad breath can be an indicator of deeper health issues at work within us. Perhaps we should take a closer look.

What is Bad Breath?

Halitosis is the official moniker for this condition that manifests itself as unpleasant mouth odor. The causes for it are seemingly endless, but the majority of halitosis is the result of poor dental hygiene in one shape or another. Bad breath itself is more of a social problem than a medical one. Unless…the halitosis is a symptom of underlying health problems, which we will discuss further. But plain old bad breath can be a hindrance in business and personal relationships. Some people have a compulsion about it, and are always worrying if they are offending others with their breath. There are other people who genuinely do have a terrible problem with halitosis, and are totally unaware of it. (I think we have all met someone like this). The truth is that all of us have a problem with bad breath at one time or another. It only becomes an issue, or an indicator of other health problems, when it becomes a chronic condition.

How Do I Know If I Have Halitosis?

This is an age-old question that has spawned various and sundry methods for self-diagnosis. Here are a few of the more popular methods to find out if you have bad breath:

  • The best and most reliable is probably to ask a trusted and faithful friend or spouse who cares enough about you to give you the straight truth if you do indeed have a problem with halitosis.
  • Another test is to cup your hand over your mouth, exhale, and inhale your own breath through your nose to get a self-induced verdict.
  • Some folks have taken a spoon and scraped the back of their tongue. Then they take a good sniff and analyze the results.
  • Here’s a different one:  Lick the back of your hand, and then smell the licked area after it has had a few moments to dry.
  • I’m not sure how reliable any of these are, other than asking someone, but it shows you the length people will go to in order to reassure themselves that they do not have offensive breath.

What Causes Bad Breath?

The list of all the factors that can cause halitosis is quite exhaustive, so for the sake of brevity and clarity, let’s break it down into several main topics that answer the question fairly comprehensively:

  • Dental Problems:  This is no doubt the number one reason folks have halitosis. Food particles that are not cleansed from the mouth after eating spawn the growth of bacteria that leads to a foul-smelling substance called hydrogen sulfur. In addition to that, when plaque (a sticky substance that is composed of saliva, food particles, and bacteria)forms on the teeth, it also causes an unpleasant odor. Gingivitis and periodontal disease (gum disease) are also culprits when it comes to bad breath. Another common issue is poorly fitting or maintained dentures. If they are loose or not cleaned regularly, food particles and bacteria will hide in the gaps and produce bad smelling breath. Other dental issues that can produce foul breath include cavities, canker sores, and cold sores.
  • Food and beverages:  Certain foods that have strong tastes or odors, or some that are composed of resilient oils, are particularly troublesome regarding bad breath. Vegetables such as onion, garlic, ginger, and some spices such as hot peppers and curry, seem to stay on our breath no matter what we do. There is a reason for this. Once these foods reach the digestive tract, the pungent oils are absorbed into the bloodstream, and then travel to the lungs. They are exhaled through the lungs, and it takes quite a while before the odors are completely out of our systems. Alcohol works the same way. That is why the amount of alcohol in your bloodstream can be tested with a Breathalyzer. So no matter how much we try to brush, floss, or disguise our breath with mints, some substances will die hard to be covered up. Coffee is another beverage that is responsible for many cases of bad breath. Most coffee drinkers are not aware of this. As they say, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”
  • Sinus, nose, and throat conditions:  If you have a sinus infection, and especially if you have chronic sinusitis, chances are you have to deal with halitosis as well. The infectious nasal discharges by nature have a bad odor that is exhaled via your breath. Other infections such as tonsillitis, mononucleosis, and strep throat will also produce bad breath in many individuals. Respiratory infections such as bronchitis or even a head cold can produce bad breath due to the sputum and phlegm that is produced from the infections.
  • Dry Mouth:  Saliva is an amazing substance. It acts as a cleanser and moistener for your mouth, and helps keep the mucous membranes healthy. If your mouth becomes too dry, and there is not adequate saliva present, it becomes easier for dead cells and bacteria to accumulate and cause odor problems. Anything that reduces the production of saliva is an enemy to fresh breath. Typical causes for insufficient saliva include many medications, dysfunctional conditions of the salivary gland, and smoking. “Morning Breath” can be attributed to a dry mouth as well, especially if you have a tendency to breath through your mouth while sleeping.
  • Tobacco:  Smoking is one of the most popular reasons why folks get bad breath, and it occurs for several reasons. First and foremost is the obvious one: the foul smelling fumes of the smoke itself. But smoking also dries out the mouth, which increases the risk for halitosis too. Many people who use smokeless tobacco will develop periodontal disease, which is also a major contributor to bad breath, not to mention the nasty smell of the snuff itself after it bastes in saliva.
  • Fasting:  Going without food for a period of time can produce foul breath as well, but this is actually a good thing. The reason for the bad breath is that fasting encourages the body to cleanse itself of impurities, and they often come out smelling rather bad. The short-term unpleasantness is worth the long-term benefits. Foul breath usually stops after the first couple of days during a fast. Drinking plenty of water can help, unless you are fasting from water too, for some reason.
  • Other Diseases:  Bad breath can also be an indicator of underlying health conditions, and sometimes these can be identified by the type of odor given off. For example, liver disease may produce a “fishy” breath odor; kidney failure makes the breath smell like urine; diabetics will often have breath that is described as “fruity.” Lung infections or abscesses will produce a particularly foul odor. Many folks who suffer from indigestion or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) will also have to deal with halitosis as well.

What Are the Best Ways to Treat or Prevent Bad Breath?

  • Probably the biggest step you can take to keep your breath fresh is to make sure you have excellent dental hygiene. Brushing after meals, and flossing at least once a day (before bed is best) is essential. Beyond that, make sure you remember to brush your tongue as well. The tongue is built with lots of nooks and crannies that can be a breeding ground for bacteria if not cleaned regularly.
  • The use of mouthwashes and breath mints are really not necessary or even beneficial in most cases. Most of them contain sugar that only feeds bacteria that contribute to bad breath anyway. Some mouthwashes also contain alcohol, which dries the mouth out and can actually worsen halitosis once the flavorings in the mouthwash wear off.
  • Rather than mouthwash and breath mints, a better course of action is to rinse the mouth with water every time after you eat. This gets most of the food particles out immediately, before they have time to decay and cause odor problems.
  • Don’t forget to change your toothbrush every few months. They can be breeding grounds for bacteria too.
  • Speaking of brushing, the best toothpaste anyone can use, and especially folks who struggle with bad breath, is plain old baking soda. It is excellent for the environment of your mouth, and helps to balance the pH as well, which leads to a healthier mouth and fresher breath.
  • There are some herbal treatments for bad breath that work very well. Chewing fresh mint leaves is one of my favorites. Parsley is excellent too (Who says it’s on your plate just for looks!)
  • Natural dietary suggestions include citrus fruits, celery, and apples, which are all natural cleansers for the mouth.
  • Supplementation with Vitamin C and zinc are also popular with some folks to battle halitosis. Some commercial mouthwashes even include zinc as one of the ingredients.

If you suffer from halitosis, and especially if it is a chronic issue, the most important thing you can do is to find out what is causing the concern, and take the necessary steps to solve it. Not only will this lead to fresher breath, but it may also alert you to a more serious health condition that is behind the halitosis. Chronic bad breath is usually more than just a personal hygiene problem, and the sooner you determine the problem(s) behind the symptom, the better off your overall health and wellness will be.

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