When you know what causes bad breath, you can treat it easier. There’s more to combatting halitosis than avoiding garlic or popping a breath mint a few times a day. In reality, some types of bad breath can even be linked to underlying health problems!
Bad breath is caused by odor-producing bacteria that grows on the mouth and tongue. Failure to regularly brush and floss will result in bacteria accumulating between your teeth and tongue. The bacteria releases sulfur compounds that makes your breath smell bad.
If you ask your dentist what causes bad breath, some of the most common reasons include:
Even if you’re rinsing all day long with mouthwash, it might have ingredients like alcohol that dry out your mouth and alter the natural flora inside of it. When that happens, it can make halitosis even worse.
We also know that health issues like diabetes, certain types of cancers, or lung problems can cause bad breath. So if you’re brushing, flossing, seeing your dentist, and doing all the things you think you need to get rid of bad breath but it just isn’t getting better, you need to have a serious talk with your dentist or doctor to find out why.
Somewhere around 90% of the bacteria that cause bad breath are on your tongue. If you’ve ever looked at your tongue up close in the mirror, you’ve seen the tiny little papilla that covers its surface. Every time you eat, food debris and waste products collect around those papillae. After a while, they start to stink.
Another type of halitosis that has a uniquely potent odor is the bad breath that comes from gum disease. With periodontitis, you have the added combination of dealing with necrotic (dying) tissues inside of your mouth. It’s caused by plaque and tartar buildup under your gums, causing a chronic infection that lowers your immune system and can lead to tooth loss. The bad thing about it is that you can’t really clean those bacteria out on your own, because of how far it is under your gums.
Apart from your mouth, your nasal sinuses, back of the throat, GI tract, and airway all have a lot to do with bad breath. Sometimes mucus or bacteria just hang out back there and there’s no way to clean it out. When they do, it will eventually cause that odor to make its way to your mouth, and thus be what causes bad breath.
First and foremost, if you’re not already, you need to be cleaning your tongue every time you brush your teeth. For most people, that’s with a toothbrush. But if you want to get rid of bad breath or halitosis, you should use a tongue scraper.
Tongue scrapers have a firm plastic loop that’s flat or sometimes has little ribbed teeth on it. You place it on the back of your tongue and then drag it towards the front. Do it once and you’ll be shocked at what comes off.
Just be warned, some people get kinda gaggy when they use a tongue scraper for the first few times. If you have a sensitive gag reflex, just put it as far as you’re comfortable with. Or try this tip: sprinkle a tiny pinch of salt on your tongue first!
And of course, you NEED to be cleaning your gums with a toothbrush and floss. Wrap your floss around each tooth and slide it down under the gums to clean out your gum pockets. If flossing is a challenge, watch my video on how to use water flossers.
Don’t rule out your allergies. If you have a kid that has bad breath and you notice that they’re always breathing out of their mouth, it’s probably because they have something going on with their sinus tract. Mouth breathing leads to dry mouth, and on top of the runny nose, it’s a recipe for halitosis!
If you smoke, now is a good reason to stop. Tobacco can also ramp up halitosis even if you brush regularly.
If regular brushing and flossing isn’t helping to get rid of bad breath — and you’ve already ruled out things like medical issues or sinus drainage from your allergies — then the next step is to see a dentist.
Your dentist will probably tell you that the dental hygienist needs to clean your teeth, to get rid of the hard tartar under your gums. Since you can brush or floss this dental calculus off, it tends to harbor lots of bacteria and get larger over time.
Sometimes you need a deep cleaning or SRP, to clean areas that have active periodontal disease. These visits will remove the hard buildup so that your gums can start to heal, and gradually your breath can start to improve.
At that point if you’re not seeing any improvement, or if you didn’t have gum disease to begin with, your dentist will probably tell you to talk to your doctor to rule out any GI issues or other health problems.
Besides good oral hygiene, there are some extra things you can do to treat what causes bad breath.
Make sure you’re getting enough water to drink. Smelly bacteria love dry mouths because they can multiply even quicker and put off more odor. Sip on water between meals and try to stay away from sodas, fruit juice, sports drinks, or flavored coffee, since all of those things can add more fuel for the bacteria.
Look into using essential oils like mint to make your own mouthwash (just add a couple of drops to a small cup of water). Or easier, buy mouth rinses that don’t have alcohol in them, since most of them contain essential oils anyway. Use them after you brush and floss to keep your breath fresher, longer.
Thirdly, find some products with Xylitol in it. Chewing gum is probably the most common. Xylitol actually prevents bacteria from building up in your mouth, so using it to your advantage can help you stop what causes bad breath.
Finally, check to see what medications or supplements you’re taking that could be drying out your mouth. Allergy medications are some of the most common. Take them as directed by your doctor but ask about how long you need them or if an alternative is available.
Certain types of food can break down in your GI tract to cause bad breath, even if they’re not “smelly” like garlic and onions. For instance, milk, cheese, yogurts, ice cream, and eggs can all cause smelly breath well after your meal.
Foods that contain sulfur, like broccoli or Brussels sprouts (kale too, in case you needed another reason not to eat it) can also contribute to halitosis. That’s not to say you shouldn’t eat them, because you need your veggies, but just balance them with the rest of your diet… or try to avoid them if you know you’ve got something social coming up where you really need to have fresh breath.
If you really want to indulge in that heavy garlic sauce, save it for when you know you’re not going to be around a lot of people afterwards. And even then, go rinse your mouth out with water and use a tongue scraper after you eat.
For people who wear dentures or partials, make sure you’re not getting food stuck under your prosthesis after meals. Sneak away, slip it out, then rinse it off really good with water before you put it back in. And of course, make sure you’re soaking it in a cleanser overnight.
Everybody gets bad breath at some point or another. But when it comes to the causes of bad breath or chronic halitosis, there are things you can do to lower your chances of scaring everybody off.
Talking to your dentist or dental hygienist about bad breath might sound embarrassing, but it’s something that’s totally normal. If your halitosis isn’t dental-related, it could be due to something major going on with your health. Why not just ask your dentist to rule out everything else, first?
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