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Bad Breath: Characteristics, Causes & Treatment

Bad Breath
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What is Bad Breath?

Few people need a description of bad breath. We’ve likely all experienced it personally or noticed it on someone else. Bad breath that comes from your mouth or nose is called halitosis and it afflicts 30 percent of the population from time to time. It can be temporary, like after eating a meal loaded with garlic, or chronic and long-lasting.

Bad breath can be easy to address, or it can signal a more serious underlying health condition. So if you’ve ever experienced that not-so-fresh feeling, you’re not alone. And there’s a good chance the situation will resolve once the underlying cause is uncovered and addressed (x).

Causes of Bad Breath

Food and Beverages

In most cases, bad breath results from the breakdown of volatile sulfur compounds. How do these sulfur compounds get to your mouth and nose in the first place? One way is through food. Foods that contain lots of sulfur, like garlic and onions, can cause temporary bad breath as they’re being digested.

Other foods and beverages like coffee and alcohol leave a distinct aroma on the breath until they’re metabolized or washed away (x).

In addition, certain diets can alter the smell of a person’s breath. For example, a diet very low in carbohydrates will release ketones from the breath, which have a noticeable smell (x).

Hygiene and Oral Health

Bacteria also produces volatile sulfur compounds. The mouth is a natural breeding ground for bacteria even when kept very clean through brushing, flossing and mouthwash. “Morning breath”, for example, often occurs even among those with the cleanest mouths.

Many factors can increase the level of bacteria in the mouth, increasing the chance of bad breath. Poor oral hygiene causes increased dental plaque and leaves food particles in the teeth. This can significantly up the bacteria level in the mouth, which produces the odorous byproducts. Neglecting oral health also leads to cavities and gum disease which also contribute to an accumulation of bacteria.

Those with dentures may experience bad breath if they’re not cleaned well or if they don’t fit properly. Poorly fitting dentures leave space for food and bacteria to get trapped.

Another oral health concern that can lead to bad breath is called dry mouth. This occurs when someone doesn’t produce enough saliva to wash away food and bacteria. Medical conditions, some medications, coffee, alcohol and tobacco can all contribute to dry mouth (x).

Poor oral health caused by inadequate hygiene or other factors is by far the most common cause of bad breath (x).

The Tongue

The coating of the tongue cannot be overlooked as the culprit for bad breath. It has its own microbiome and, when studied, researchers found that people with bad breath metabolized certain compounds such as branched-chain fatty acids differently than people with normal breath.

Evidence also suggests that an overgrowth of the yeast Candida in the mouth, particularly on the tongue, contributes to bad breath in some people (x).

More research is needed to understand the relationship between metabolic pathways and the tongue’s microbiome, but making sure the tongue gets cleaned during the process of regular toothbrushing helps remove bacteria from the mouth (x).

Other Conditions

In about 4 percent of cases, bad breath has nothing to do with the mouth at all. Conditions originating in the nose, throat, lungs or gastrointestinal tract can cause it. Examples of such conditions include acid reflux (GERD), tonsillitis, sinus infection and, more rarely, kidney or liver problems. Diseases involving metabolism like hypoglycemia and diabetes also change the scent of the breath (x, x).

Tobacco Use

Not only does tobacco impart a bad smell on your mouth and body in general, it further contributes to bad breath by promoting dry mouth and gum disease (x).

Bad Breath Causes

Natural Remedies for Bad Breath

A healthy mouth is the best remedy for bad breath. The American Dental Association recommends brushing at least twice a day, flossing once a day and making sure to brush your tongue. If you have dentures, mouthguards or retainers, those need to be properly cleaned as well (x). In addition to standard hygiene, lots of other remedies exist to prevent or treat bad breath.

Examine Your Diet

What you eat affects how your breath smells. A few foods and beverages to be mindful of include:

  • Coffee. Aside from the pungent odor left in your mouth after drinking a cup, the caffeine found in coffee can cause dry mouth.
  • Sugar. Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates (i.e., white bread) are associated with bad breath. Not only can the sugar increase your risk of developing cavities, but it can also promote the overgrowth of Candida (x).
  • Garlic and onions. While generally considered a healthy part of one’s diet, these foods undeniably contribute to temporary bad breath.

While some foods may cause bad breath, there are others that can actually help improve it. Certain foods can deodorize the mouth through their enzymatic effect, the activity of the antioxidants in the foods and/or the foods’ pH level. To freshen up, consider foods like (x):

  • Spinach
  • Raw apple
  • Parsley
  • Mint
  • Green tea

Additionally, fermented, probiotic-rich foods like yogurt, kimchi, kombucha, kefir and sauerkraut can help promote the balance of “good” bacteria in the mouth as well as discourage the growth of Candida (x).

Finally, drinking plenty of water can not only flush away bacteria almost instantly, it also helps prevent dry mouth. Aim for 6 to 8 cups a day (x).

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil has natural anti-fungal, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties and has long been used to promote oral health in places where coconuts naturally grow. Studies back up this traditional use of coconut oil and show that a practice called “oil pulling”, or swishing oil around your mouth for several minutes each day, prevents cavities and gingivitis (x, x).

Suck on a Lemon

Lemon can help control bad breath thanks to its antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant effects. To use it for this purpose, you could simply suck on a slice of lemon or squeeze it into a glass of water. Gargling with lemon water might be particularly useful after a meal heavy in onions or garlic. In addition, placing a drop of lemon on the tip of the tongue helps stimulate saliva production which can alleviate dry mouth (x, x).

Supplements for Bad Breath

Zinc

There are more than 300 different cellular functions in the body that use zinc, including those involved in the gut flora, mouth and microbiome. Studies show that zinc is effective in reducing the buildup of sulfur-containing compounds that are responsible for bad breath. You can use a mouthwash that contains zinc or chewing gum to control bad breath (x).

Vitamin D

Getting enough Vitamin D is important for many reasons, including oral health. A deficiency of vitamin D can lead to a condition called burning mouth syndrome, which causes a metallic or bitter taste in the mouth along with dryness that causes bad breath (x).

Green Tea Extract

Research shows that green tea reduces odor because of its antimicrobial and antibacterial properties. This is because of the antioxidants and polyphenols it contains (x).

The Bottom Line

Bad breath is never pleasant, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end. While sometimes it’s simply the temporary result of a garlicky meal, other times it can suggest that the mouth needs some attention. Poor hygiene, tooth decay, gum disease, dry mouth and oral infections can cause bad breath. Less commonly, other underlying health conditions can contribute to this malady. Acid reflux, diabetes, yeast overgrowth or sinus infections are examples.

Luckily, drinking lots of water, being diligent about oral hygiene and focusing on certain deodorizing foods can often help. Consulting a dentist or even a doctor may be necessary to check for something more serious that may be going on.

About the author

Mahnum Shakoor


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