Bad breath happens to all of us. It even has a scientific name: halitosis. Bad breath occurs when bacteria breed on the tongue, teeth and in the oral cavity. When bacteria in our mouth break down the proteins in our food it creates a sort of sulfuric type of odor.
But for some people, stinky breath is more than just a periodic nuisance that strikes first thing in the morning or after a garlicky meal. It may be a constant source of embarrassment or distress. In rare cases, it may even signal a brewing health condition.
Breaking Down Halitosis
There are plenty of reasons why you might be suffering from bad breath, but the most common causes include:
- Dry mouth: When your mouth dries out, bacteria hang out in the crooks and crevices of the tongue and oral cavity, increasing the likelihood of foul odors. In fact, dry mouth is one of the key culprits behind morning breath. The salivary glands that keep your mouth moist are less active overnight. The best defense: Brush and floss your teeth before bed.
- Food: Onions, garlic, kale, broccoli, legumes and other foods that produce increased gases can linger in your mouth for hours after you’ve eaten.
- Bacteria: Hundreds of species of bad breath-causing bacteria live inside your mouth. Your mouth also acts as a sort of breeding ground for bacteria to grow and flourish.
- Medication: Prescription and over-the-counter medications, including decongestants, antihistamines, diuretics and drugs that treat depression and high blood pressure can be problematic. Many of these drugs produce dry mouth as a side effect.
- Medical conditions: A variety of health conditions can cause bad breath, especially those that affect the mouth and gut (gum disease, tonsillitis, sinusitis and acid reflux). Other conditions such as a lung infection or abscess and diseases that affect the liver or kidneys can also cause bad breath. You may even be suffering from a condition called pseudo-halitosis, where you think you have bad breath, even though your breath smells fine.
Resolving Bad Breath
Whether you wake up with dragon breath or sense a stench coming from your mouth several times a day, halitosis can usually be treated quickly and easily by maintaining good oral health. Here are five things you can do to keep bad breath at bay:
- Brush frequently: Brushing physically removes some of the bacteria that cause bad breath.
- Avoid tobacco: Smoking and chewing tobacco can create bad odors that are tough to eliminate.
- Stay hydrated: Since dry mouth can lead to bad breath, it's important to drink enough water.
- Use mouthwash: Alcohol-free mouthwashes can help kill bacteria and neutralize the odors that cause bad breath without causing dryness.
- Visit your dentist: About 80 to 90% of the causes behind bad breath relate to the mouth. Maybe your mouth guard hasn’t been cleaned properly, your teeth aren’t sitting correctly in your mouth or your dentures don’t fit. In each of those cases, a dentist can help resolve your dilemma.
While stinky breath is usually harmless, it can also be a sign of something more serious. In every case, it makes sense to visit your primary care provider. Your doctor can perform tests to confirm halitosis, detect certain compounds related to bad breath and then make a diagnosis.
Dr. Earlexia Norwood is a family medicine physician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center -Troy and is the service chief for family medicine at Henry Ford West Bloomfield Hospital. Learn more about Dr. Norwood and read her other articles.