Bad Breath (Halitosis)

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bad-breathWhat causes bad breath?

Bad breath affects most adults at some stage. It is usually due to a breakdown of proteins somewhere in the mouth but can be due to several other possibilities affecting the airway, oesophagus (gullet) and stomach. It can be highly embarrassing socially.

Morning breath

This condition affects nearly everyone first thing in the morning. When asleep, saliva flow severely reduces while the tongue and cheeks move very little. This allows food residues to stay in the mouth and dead cells from the tongue, gums and the inside of the cheeks to build up. As bacteria in your mouth start to work on and breakdown these remains, they generate an unpleasant smell.  Although normal, anyone with a blocked nose who mouth-breathes at night is more likely to be affected. Morning breath usually disappears after breakfast and daily brushing, because saliva starts to flow again and any leftovers are washed away and swallowed.

Occasional bad breath

The most common causes of temporary bad breath include smoking cigarettes or cigars, drinking alcohol or eating certain foods such as onions, garlic and curries. Smoking also reduces the flow of saliva and so worsens bad breath. People who alternatively binge and then fast are more likely to suffer halitosis.

Factors that can cause bad breath

  • Dental decay
  • Gum disease (which is caused by plaque.) Plaque is a sticky, soft film that builds up on the teeth and contains a variety of bacteria, saliva and food by-products. The bacteria create a bad odour. The cause of gum disease is often bad oral hygiene. Regular brushing of the teeth helps reduce bad breath. 
  • Food getting trapped between the teeth which is broken down by bacteria.
  • Dry mouth is a result of a poor saliva flow which is the body’s natural defence mechanism and washes the debris away.
  • Excessive bacterial activity on the tongue, possibly due to postnasal drip (catarrh coming down the back of the throat from the sinuses and nose passages).
  • Throat, tonsil infection or lung problems such as chronic bronchitis and bronchietasis (where infected spit is present).
  • Reflux of the stomach contents.
  • Catarrh.

Usually the cause is oral but in rare cases, bad breath can be a sign of a significant general health problem, so it should not be ignored.

How can bad breath be treated?

Visit the dentist and do not try to mask the odour. If there is any dental treatment required to eliminate disease this will be carried out. If no oral cause can be identified by the dentist, it may be necessary to attend a clinic that specialises in bad breath, or to visit other health professionals.

What can you do for yourself?

Maintain a high level of oral and dental hygiene. In addition to brushing, it is important to clean between the teeth using dental floss, woodsticks or an inter-dental brush as recommended by your dentist.

Use a tongue cleaner and clean right to the back of the tongue. A mouthwash can be recommended by the dentist to use at night time. Coffee can be a culprit and chewing sugar free gum should help. Drinking plenty of fluids should prevent the mouth becoming too dry. A regular visit to the dentist is important for professional cleaning.

Last updated: March 25, 2014

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