Bad Breath: Causes and Cures

You only have one chance to make a good first impression. You want people to remember your confidence and smarts -- not your breath.

Bad breath (halitosis) has many causes. But lucky for you it has even more solutions.

CAUSE: Bacteria that breed inside your mouth. These little bugs lurk between your teeth and cover your tongue. When they get stuck in one place, they multiply and give off stinky odors.

CURE: Brush and floss. Genaro Romo, DDS, says to brush your teeth -- and tongue -- twice a day for at least 2 minutes. Floss once a day. Use a fluoride toothpaste. An inexpensive tongue scraper will also remove smelly bacteria[.

CAUSE: Tonsil stones. Your tonsils are full of little pits and pockets that collect bacteria and mucus until a cheese-like substance hardens into a "stone." These nuggets stink and cause bad breath and a nasty taste in your mouth.

CURE: Remove and prevent. A water flosser can help get rid of debris before it turns into a stone or flush stones out once they start,says Stacey Ishman, MD, surgical director for the Upper Airway Center at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.You can also gently remove the stones with a cotton swab or even your toothbrush. Once you get them out, the trick is to prevent more from forming. Gargle with warm salt water to clear the bacteria and mucus from the crypts before stones can form. If you have tonsillitis and stones often, your best bet may be to have your tonsils surgically removed.

CAUSE: Tummy troubles. Sometimes GI problems like reflux or an ulcer can cause foul smells when you burp and release gas.

CURE: Antacids. Over-the-counter antacids or acid blockers may ease a sour or acidic stomach. If you're lactose intolerant and have GI problems, try lactase tablets. Eating yogurt or taking probiotics can boost the good bacteria in your gut and may get your mouth in better shape.

CAUSE: Smelly food. Onion, garlic, and some spices can cause bad breath. The odor lingers while food particles stay in your mouth, but these foods give you a double-whammy. Once they make it through your system, their stinky chemicals travel through your bloodstream to the lungs where you breathe them out.CURE: Brush and floss. Brushing, flossing, and rinsing will loosen hidden food bits and prevent odor-causing bacteria from multiplying. If that doesn't help, limit the amount of garlic and onion you eat or skip them unless they're cooked.

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CAUSE: Infection. Bad breath can be a good thing if it lets you know you have a sinus infection, Ishman says.

CURE: Open your sinuses. Treat congestion and postnasal drip with saline spray, allergy treatments, extra fluids, or nasal steroids. Ishman suggests antibiotics for bacterial and chronic sinus infections. But, she says, sinus problems are caused by viruses not treated with antibiotics. If your child has bad breath and one runny nostril, have her doctor check to see if she stuffed an object up her nose.

CAUSE: Dry mouth. Dry mouth can foul your breath. Why? Saliva's job is to clean debris and bacteria from your mouth. If you don't make enough, many things could be to blame -- too much caffeine, a stuffy nose that turns you into a mouth-breather, medications like antihistamines, or even a fairly rare disease called Sjogren's syndrome, which dries up moist places all over your body.CURE: Drink water and make some spit. Stay hydrated so you your mouth's built-in cleaning system works. Chew sugar-free gum or suck sugar-free candies to help. Check with your doctor about medication for that stuffy nose or for artificial saliva products.

CAUSE: Unhealthy mouth. Cavities and gum disease can create an awful stink. Cure: Oral hygiene. See your dentist at least every six months for a teeth cleaning and exam, Romo says. Brush, floss, and use a fluoride mouth rinse with the American Dental Association's seal. Rinses that have alcohol can dry your mouth.

CAUSE: Tobacco. Chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes, cigars, or a pipe can leave a nasty taste -- and smell -- in your mouth. Users are also prone to gum disease -- another cause of bad breath.

CURE: Quit. The best option for your breath and your overall health is to stop using any tobacco product. Keep up with oral hygiene while you kick the habit: Brush, floss, rinse, drink plenty of water, or chew sugar-free gum.

CAUSE: Chronic health problem. Sometimes bad breath is a sign of a more serious problem, like an infection, chronic bronchitis, diabetes, or kidney or liver disease.

CURE: Get treated. If none of the at-home tips help with your bad breath, see your doctor so she can test you for other more serious causes.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Michael Friedman, DDS on December 15, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Mouth Healthy.org: "Halitosis."

Genaro Romo, DDS, private practice, Chicago; spokesperson ADA.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center HealthBeat: "What Are Tonsil Stones (Tonsilloliths)?"

Stacey Ishman, MD, MPH, surgical director, Upper Airway Center, Departments of Otolaryngology & Pulmonary Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Medical Center.

Mayo Clinic: "Bad breath/Causes."

Kinberg, S. Canadian Journal of Gastroenterology, September 2010.

American College of Gastroenterology: "Acid Reflux."

Webb, D. Today's Dietitian, April 2012.

Saha, S. Expert Opinion on Biological Therapy, September 2012.

American Dental Association: "Bad breath: Causes and tips for controlling it."

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology: "Sinusitis: Treatment & Management."

Mayo Clinic: "Bad breath/Lifestyle and home remedies."

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