Good Solutions for Bad Breath

Why you (and just about everybody else) get bad breath -- and how to show it the door.

Medically Reviewed by Eric Yabu, DDS on December 22, 2009
2 min read

There's an old saying that nothing is certain in life but death and taxes. But add one more thing to the list -- bad breath. Just about everyone has had it.

"At least 50% of the adult population has bad breath at one point or another, and just about everyone has it in the morning,"says Andrew Spielman, DMD, PhD, associate dean for academic affairs and professor of basic science and craniofacial biology at the NYU College of Dentistry.

According to Spielman, 90% of bad breath is caused by bacteria, which break down food and salivary proteins in the mouth and, in the process, "release odorous compounds." Bacteria hide out on the tongue, which works much like Velcro to trap bad odors. Morning is the worst time because our mouths have been dry all night, giving bacteria plenty of time to work their smelly magic.

Food is a major cause of bad breath, but so is not eating enough. "Time intervals in between eating cause bacteria to accumulate in the oral cavity, and there's not enough saliva to produce the normal cleansing that occurs," Spielman says. Some drugs reduce levels of saliva too. An easy fix? Chewing sugar-free gum or sucking mints or candy can help combat dry mouth.

Bad breath isn't always what it seems. Once foods such as garlic and onion are metabolized by the liver, their odor is excreted in perspiration and from the lungs, rather than from the mouth. A bad odor coming from an exhale through the nose is a sign of something systemic, which affects the body as a whole and can indicate an underlying medical condition such as liver disease or diabetes.

Unlike death and taxes, you can do something about most cases of bad breath. "With good oral hygiene, this is absolutely controllable," Spielman says.

Spielman offers some sure-fire ways to detect and cure bad breath:

Lick. We become accustomed to the smell in our own mouths and can't detect it, which is why blowing into your hand won't reveal the true quality of your breath. Instead, press your tongue (as far back as you can reach) against the back of your hand. Let the saliva dry for 10 seconds, then smell.

Scrape. Sixty percent of bad breath is due to plaque that accumulates in the tongue's folds, particularly toward the back. One of the best ways to clear it away is with a tongue scraper twice daily.

Rinse. Many common mouthwashes use alcohol to kill bacteria -- which is not the best ingredient, Spielman says. Instead, gargle once a day with a solution containing zinc chloride. An intense green or blue color is your clue to the right stuff.