What's Causing Bad Breath?

It’s happened to all of us at one time or another. Is there anything we can do to keep breath odor at bay? According to the American Dental Association, knowing what causes it can help reduce the risk.

Halitosis, or bad breath, is triggered by many things, and it most often starts in the mouth. Poor oral hygiene allows food particles to collect on the surface of the tongue, between the teeth or along the gingival (gum) tissue that surrounds the teeth. Naturally occurring bacteria in your mouth then break down those food particles, releasing chemicals that have a strong odor.

Saliva washes food particles from the mouth. People with a dry mouth are at an increased risk of experiencing bad breath. Some medications, mouth breathing and smoking all contribute to dry mouth.

Infections in the mouth, such as dental caries (tooth decay), periodontal (gum) disease or mouth sores related to other conditions may contribute to bad breath. Surgical wounds (from extracted teeth, for example) also can be a source of halitosis.

The bacterial film called “plaque” that occurs naturally in your mouth can build up if not removed regularly through good oral hygiene practices. Plaque bacteria give off an odor that affects your breath.

Diet is a common bad breath culprit. Foods like garlic and onions can foul breath. Once food is digested, chemicals that cause odor can be absorbed into your bloodstream and from there into your lungs; the chemicals then are exhaled. Diets high in protein and sugar also have been associated with bad breath.

And bad breath can be a byproduct of certain health conditions. It may result from infections in the nose, throat or lungs; chronic sinusitis; postnasal drip; chronic bronchitis; or disturbances in your digestive system.

The best weapon you have in fighting off bad breath is oral hygiene. Caring for your mouth will help limit food residue and plaque buildup and reduce the risk of developing caries and periodontal disease.

The ADA recommends brushing twice a day with a fluoride-containing toothpaste and cleaning between your teeth once a day with an interdental cleaner such as floss. Brush your tongue, too, to remove bacteria that contribute to oral odors (especially in the back, where most of these bacteria are found). If you wear removable dentures, take them out at night and brush them thoroughly with a denture cleanser before replacing them the next morning. When choosing oral care products, look for those that display the ADA’s Seal of Acceptance—your assurance that they have met ADA criteria for safety and effectiveness.

If bad breath stems from dry mouth, consider chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on sugar-free candies to help stimulate salivary flow. There are also artificial salivas on the market that may help.

Talk to your dentist about your concerns with bad breath. A thorough health history and list of medications and supplements you’re taking may be helpful in determining whether the cause of bad breath is localized to the mouth or if it’s a systemic condition, in which case you may need to see a physician. If your breath problems stem from an oral cause, your dentist can work with you to develop a treatment plan that minimizes odor. This could include scraping the plaque off your tongue, using a special antibacterial mouthrinse or both. Find information on bad breath and other oral and dental conditions at the ADA’s consumer website, MouthHealthy.org.

© 2017 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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Foul-smelling breath, usually caused by the breakdown of food. Other culprits include poor dental hygiene, dry mouth, disease, infection, tobacco use and severe dieting.


Most bad breath starts in your mouth, and there are many possible causes that include:

  • Food particles from stinky foods like garlic and onions
  • Smoking
  • Respiratory Infections
  • Acid Reflux
  • Poor Oral Hygiene

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