Help! I Have Bad Breath!

We all occasionally have bad breath. Because we are largely incapable of detecting it ourselves, we become aware of this when friends tip us off with subtle clues, like backing up when speaking to us and standing several feet further away. Or, if they’re really friends, when they say something like, “Dude. Mouthwash time. Right now.” But there are things we can do both to treat bad breath, and to prevent it.

What causes bad breath?

Most bad breath (technically, halitosis) starts in the mouth. All of the foods we eat begin the process of being broken down and digested there. Whether from bits of food left in the mouth after eating, from the buildup of plaque (bacteria that form naturally in the mouth), or from odors from foods such as onions or garlic being absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to our lungs, they eventually find their way to our breath. Halitosis is usually strongest in the mornings (because your mouth is less exposed to oxygen during sleep) and is transient, going away after brushing the teeth or using a mouthwash. But in some cases, bad breath may persist during the day, and in extreme cases (approximately 25%) can become chronic.

Chronic bad breath can be an indicator of more serious conditions than just failing to brush after a meal of garlic and onions. Persistent halitosis may be a symptom of gum disease, which, left untreated, can cause damage to the tissues and bones of the jaw. Persistent bad breath is also often associated with xerostomia, or “dry mouth,” a condition that prevents us from producing enough saliva. Saliva is needed to keep the mouth moist and to cleanse away acids and bacteria; if there is insufficient saliva, the result can be bad breath. In rarer cases, chronic bad breath can be a symptom of diabetes, pneumonia, acid reflux disease, or liver and kidney problems.

What can I do about bad breath?

As with so many health issues, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The first line of defense against halitosis is keeping your mouth clean. Try to brush and floss after every meal, to avoid leaving particles of food in the mouth that can invite bacterial growth. Using a toothpaste that contains tea tree oil (a natural disinfectant) can help. If you have bad breath often, in addition to brushing your teeth, consider brushing your tongue as well. The tongue is the actual source of most bad breath, because it is a perfect habitat for bacteria. So don’t just brush your teeth; brush your tongue as well, or use a tongue scraper, which you can find in any pharmacy.

Many rely on gums, mints, and other remedies to hide their bad breath. But remember that this is all that they do – hide it. They do nothing to treat the actual causes of the halitosis itself. The same can be said, interestingly enough, for most commercial mouthwash products. Despite the millions of dollars spent each year on mouthwashes, there has never been a documented case of chronic halitosis actually being cured by a mouthwash. A good disinfectant mouthwash can help to eliminate bacteria in the mouth, but unfortunately many of the commercial mouthwash products contain large amounts of alcohol, which dries out the mouth, prevents the production of saliva, and thus just perpetuates the problem. If you have persistent bad breath and want to try an effective mouthwash, ask your doctor or dentist for a recommended brand, and gargle with it before you go to sleep, and in the morning when you wake up.

Are there natural remedies for bad breath?

Interestingly, eating a healthy breakfast that contains rough foods such as whole wheat breads and cereals can help, because such foods help to clean the back of the tongue. Snacking during the day on crunchy foods such as apples, carrots, and celery also help to keep the mouth clean.

Rather than sucking on sugary mints, consider chewing aromatic herbs and spices such as spearmint or peppermint, cloves, rosemary, fennel, or tarragon to freshen your breath. Eating oranges (or even chewing on the orange peels) freshen the breath, and the vitamin C they contain help to fight bacteria. Vitamin C also helps to prevent gum disease and gingivitis. The extract of magnolia bark has been proven to kill most oral bacteria within half an hour.

Switching from coffee to tea (either green or black) can be useful, because teas contain antioxidants that inhibit the growth of both bacteria and plaque. Most importantly, drink lots of water during the day, to keep your mouth moist.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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