Bad Breath (Halitosis)

What Is It?

Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is breath that has an unpleasant odor. In many people, the millions of bacteria that live in the mouth (particularly on the back of the tongue) are the primary causes of bad breath. The mouth’s warm, moist conditions make an ideal environment for these bacteria to grow. Some types of bad breath, such as “morning mouth,” are considered to be fairly normal, and they usually are not health concerns.

In addition, bad breath can be caused by the following:

  • Poor dental hygiene — Infrequent or improper brushing and flossing can leave food particles to decay inside the mouth.
  • Infections in the mouth — Periodontal (gum) disease
  • Respiratory tract infections — Throat infections, sinus infections, lung infections
  • External agents — Garlic, onions, coffee, cigarette smoking, chewing tobacco
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia) — This can be caused by salivary gland problems, medications or by “mouth breathing.”
  • Systemic illnesses — Diabetes, liver disease, kidney disease, lung disease, sinus disease, reflux disease and others

How long bad breath lasts depends on its cause. For example, when the problem results from poor dental hygiene, proper dental care will begin to freshen the mouth immediately, with even more impressive results after a few days of regular brushing and flossing. Periodontal disease and tooth abscess also respond quickly to proper dental treatment. Bad breath resulting from chronic sinusitis may be a recurring problem, especially if it is caused by a structural abnormality of the sinuses.

Bad breath the results from a systemic illness may be a long-term problem that can often be controlled with proper medical care.

Prevention and Treatment

Bad breath caused by dental problems can be prevented easily. Daily maintenance calls for brushing your teeth, tongue and gums after meals, flossing, and rinsing with mouthwashes. Regular visits to the dentist (at least twice a year) should be made for dental examinations and for professional teeth and gum cleaning.

Bad breath also can be combated by drinking plenty of water every day to encourage saliva production. An occasional swish of the mouth with water can loosen food particles. Other products that keep breath fresh and prevent plaque from forming include sugar-free gum, sugarless lozenges, raw carrots and celery.

Call your dentist promptly if you have bad breath with painful, swollen gums that bleed easily or loose teeth. Also, call your doctor if you have bad breath along with a fever, sore throat, a postnasal drip, a discolored nasal discharge or a mucus-producing cough. Even if you have none of these associated symptoms, call your dentist or physician if your bad breath continues despite a good diet and proper dental hygiene.

If you have diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or chronic liver or kidney disease, ask your doctor how bad breath can be a sign that your underlying medical condition needs immediate medical attention.

Once bad breath has been diagnosed, the outlook for fresh breath is usually excellent as long as you stick to your dentist’s or physician’s treatment plan.