A guide to bad breath (halitosis)

Also known as halitosis, bad breath is simply foul-smelling breath that usually results from improper oral hygiene habits. There are other causes that may also cause bad breath, and it is a much more common problem than we are aware of, affecting about half of the population at some point in their lives.

Some instances of bad breath are actually quite normal. For instance, your breath may have an unpleasant odour soon after you eat foods containing a lot of onion and garlic, or drink certain teas and other beverages. “Morning mouth” or foul breath that’s produced overnight while you sleep is also very normal. Smoking and alcohol consumption can also lead to temporary foulness of breath.

Symptoms of bad breath

Over time, you may get used to your bad breath, making it harder for you to detect its presence. Other people’s reactions are one of the indications that you suffer from halitosis. Also, look for these symptoms:

  • Dryness of the mouth, which includes difficulty in speaking and swallowing and a burning sensation in the mouth.
  • Mouth infections, which are an indication of bad breath. Look for pus between teeth, inflamed gums, sores on the gums or tongue, and loose teeth.
  • Teeth that are covered with plaque are likely to lead to bad breath.
  • Food debris that’s trapped between the teeth also means that halitosis is present.
  • Also, look for respiratory infections, and medical conditions like diabetes or kidney, lung or liver disorders.

Diagnosis of bad breath

Generally, other people notice your bad breath before you do, so encourage a friend to be frank about whether your breath smells bad. Your dentist will also be able to diagnose bad breath, when you visit him for a check up. He will look for signs that your bad breath is caused by improper dental hygiene practices. If your halitosis is caused by bad dental hygiene, your dentist will give you advice on the proper ways to brush and floss. If your dentist notices signs of gum disease that may be causing the halitosis, he may recommend you to a specialized periodontist for treatment. If he suspects any medical conditions, including diabetes, liver or kidney diseases, or lung infections, your dentist will recommend you to a family physician. If none of the above causes are present, your dentist will look at your medical history and check for dryness of the mouth, dietary factors or the role of smoking in your bad breath.

Causes of bad breath

  1. Bad oral hygiene - Over 90% of halitosis cases occur because of bad oral hygiene. When you chew food, the food pieces are broken down by natural bacteria in your mouth. This process produces a bad smelling gas. When food debris remains lodged between your teeth, it can rot over time, causing halitosis. Gum disease, accumulation of plaque in your mouth, or a coating of bacteria on the tongue can also cause bad breath.
  2. Smoking - Your breath is likely to smell of cigarettes when you smoke. Smoking also can contribute to the development of gum disease, which is a major cause of bad breath.
  3. Diet - People who consume a diet that is low on carbohydrates are also at risk for bad breath. Foods that are high in spices, certain vegetables like cabbage, and beverages like coffee and soda can also contribute to bad breath.
  4. Age - Older people and young children are more prone to halitosis. Besides these, those who are physically disabled and unable to maintain proper oral hygiene are at increased risk for bad breath.
  5. Gastritis - People who suffer from gastric problems like food reflux and gastritis are susceptible to bad breath.
  6. Respiratory tract infections - Throat, nose and lung infections can also cause bad breath.
  7. Dryness of the mouth - Here, the flow of saliva is hampered, leading to the accumulation of bad bacteria. This dryness may be caused because of problems in the salivary gland, certain medications, or if you have the habit of inhaling through the mouth. Certain cardiac drugs, blood pressure medications, calcium blockers and anti allergy medications are known to block saliva flow leading to dryness in the mouth.
  8. Cavities - People who suffer from cavities or dental caries are likely to notice bad breath as part of their symptoms.
  9. Dental appliances - Dentures, dental braces or other dental appliances that don’t fit well can also lead to bad breath.

Treatments for bad breath

The most recommended treatment for bad breath is a proper dental hygiene program. Your dentist will recommend ways to help you clean your teeth better, including teaching you the right way to brush and floss your teeth, preferably after every meal. He will recommend using a fluoride containing toothpaste, and a nylon bristled brush that has to be replaced every 3 months. He will also recommend a tongue scraper to scrub your tongue, and an anti-bad-breath mouthwash or daily rinse, which should be included in your daily routine. If the bad breath is caused by factors other than dental hygiene, your dentist will refer you to a specialist who can treat the problem.

Prevention of bad breath

  • The easiest way to prevent halitosis is to maintain a correct and regular oral hygiene program. Brush twice a day everyday, using a flexible toothbrush that can reach hard-to-reach areas of the mouth. Make flossing a part of your daily routine, and use a tongue scraper to remove coating from the tongue.
  • If you wear dentures, remove these every night. Dentures should be cleaned thoroughly before you wear them again the next morning. Avoid using soap to clean your dentures, because it leaves stains.
  • Avoid smoking and chewing tobacco.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Eat a healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables and juices. Avoid excessively spicy food.
  • Cut down on your coffee and alcohol intake.
  • Avoid consuming excessively sugary foods because these increase the bacteria in the mouth.
  • Remember to wash your mouth after consuming meats and dairy products.
  • Visit the dentist regularly to make sure that any decay problems are kept at bay.

There are a variety of over-the-counter mouthwashes that promise to remove bad breath. Most of these, however, can only mask the bad breath and provide no permanent relief.