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What Causes Bad Breath?

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Bad breath can be an embarrassing issue for some individuals and may even lead to awkwardness in social settings. Knowing what causes bad breath is important because the problem could be a sign of a more serious dental or medical issue. Fortunately, there are a number of steps that you can take to treat bad breath and make your mouth clean and healthy.

Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is an unpleasant odour that is usually detected when a person exhales. There are many causes, but most bad breath starts in the mouth. SingHealth notes the most common causes of bad breath:

  • Certain foods: Remnants of food particles that remain in your mouth can cause a temporary odour. They can be strong-tasting foods like durian, garlic, onions and some spices, as well as beverages like coffee and alcohol, which affect your breath as they are digested and travel through your body. It can take up to 72 hours before the smell goes away.
  • Tobacco: Smoking cigarettes and cigars and using other tobacco products leaves a distinct, foul odour. This easily leads to gum disease, which again leads to bad breath.
  • Poor oral hygiene and gum disease: When you skip brushing your teeth, flossing and cleaning your tongue, you allow food particles to remain in your mouth. The bacterial breakdown of these remnants of food can cause odour. In addition, the growth of bacteria increases your risk of gum disease. If you use any dental appliances, such as retainers or dentures, clean them regularly. Don't forget to change your toothbrush every two to three months or as recommended by your dentist.
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia): Saliva helps clean your mouth by clearing away food particles. If there is not enough saliva production, food particles that may cause bad odour are left in your mouth. The use of certain kinds of medications, salivary gland problems and continuous breathing through the mouth serve to decrease saliva flow, which causes bad breath.
  • Medical conditions: Respiratory infections and inflammation of the sinuses, lungs or throat can lead to bad breath. Other medical conditions that may cause bad breath include diabetes, metabolic disorders, kidney/liver failure and acid reflux.
  • Dieting and fasting: Low carb diets lead to the release of ketones, giving the breath a fruity smell. The digestive juices produced in the stomach when a person fasts also give rise to an odour. During fasting, the flow of saliva reduces, which causes dry mouth, one of the causes of bad breath as mentioned above.

How You Can Fight Bad Breath

Perhaps the most important home care remedy is to brush, floss and clean your tongue regularly. Brushing your teeth twice a day, cleaning your tongue and flossing at least once a day removes food particles from your mouth. Cleaning your tongue after brushing reduces the bacteria that resides on the back of your tongue.

Your dentist can prescribe or recommend special toothpaste and mouthwash to prevent the production of bad odours. Over-the-counter mouthwash is only a temporary solution because it does not treat the underlying cause of bad breath. Seeing your dentist and dental hygienist regularly for cleanings and check-ups is essential to good oral health. In addition, regular visits can help you determine the underlying cause of bad breath.

When to See a Medical Professional

If your dentist has eliminated dental issues as a potential cause of bad breath and determined that your mouth is healthy, you should see a medical professional. Only a medical professional can determine whether you have a medical condition.

Although bad breath can be an embarrassing issue, it does not have to be a social liability. Talk to your dentist if you have any concerns about bad breath. Following the above recommendations can help you feel more confident about your breath, even if bad breath is not a problem for you.

This article has been adapted for Singapore from the original U.S. article by Dianne L. Sefo for Singapore. About the Author: Dianne L. Sefo is a dental hygienist and a dental hygiene educator. She has been involved in multiple publications, worked in private practices in New York and Southern California and has been a faculty member at Monroe Community College, Concorde Careers College-San Diego and New York University.