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Dental Health and Bad Breath

Reviewed by Alfred D. Wyatt Jr., DMD on October 22, 2020

Bad breath, medically called halitosis, can result from poor dental health habits and may be a sign of other health problems. Bad breath can also be made worse by the types of foods you eat and other unhealthy lifestyle habits. You can take steps to prevent and treat halitosis, at home and with the help of your dentist or doctor.

How Does Food Affect Breath?

Basically, all the food eaten begins to be broken down in your mouth. Also, foods are absorbed into your bloodstream and move to the lungs, affecting the air you exhale.  If you eat foods with strong odors (such as garlic or onions), brushing and flossing -- even mouthwash -- merely cover up the odor temporarily. The odor will not go away completely until the foods have passed through your body. Other common foods that can cause bad breath include:

  • Cheese
  • Pastrami
  • Certain spices
  • Orange juice or soda
  • Alcohol

Likewise, dieters who don’t eat often enough can have bad breath. When your body breaks down fat, the process releases chemicals that can give your breath an unpleasant smell.

Why Do Poor Habits Cause Bad Breath?

If you don't brush and floss teeth daily, food particles can remain in your mouth, promoting bacterial growth between teeth, around the gums, and on the tongue. This causes bad breath. Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) from poor dental hygiene can also cause bad breath.

In addition, odor-causing bacteria and food particles can cause bad breath if dentures are not properly cleaned.

Smoking or chewing tobacco-based products also can cause bad breath, stain teeth, reduce your ability to taste foods, and irritate your gums.

What Health Problems Are Associated With Bad Breath?

Persistent bad breath or a bad taste in the mouth may be a warning sign of gum (periodontal) disease. Gum disease is caused by the buildup of plaque on teeth. Bacteria cause toxins to form, which irritate the gums. If gum disease continues untreated, it can damage the gums and jawbone.

Other dental causes of bad breath include poorly fitting dental appliances, yeast infections of the mouth, and cavities.

Continued

The medical condition dry mouth (also called xerostomia) also can cause bad breath. Saliva is necessary to moisten the mouth, neutralize acids produced by plaque, and wash away dead cells that accumulate on the tongue, gums, and cheeks. If not removed, these cells decompose and can cause bad breath. Dry mouth may be a side effect of various medications, salivary gland problems, or continuous breathing through the mouth. In fact, morning breath is worse for people who sleep with their mouths open.

Many other diseases and illnesses can cause bad breath, including:

What Can I Do to Prevent Bad Breath?

There are some quick and easy ways to banish bad breath. Just remember, the odor from what you eat can stick around until the food works its way completely out of your system -- up to 3 days later!

Bad breath can be reduced or prevented if you:

  • Practice good oral hygiene. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste to remove food debris and plaque. Brush teeth after you eat (keep a toothbrush at work or school to brush after lunch). Don't forget to brush the tongue too, or use a tongue scraper. Bacteria on your tongue can contribute to bad breath. If you can’t brush after a meal, give your mouth a good rinse with water to at least loosen up and free those trapped bits. Replace your toothbrush every 2 to 3 months or after an illness. Use floss or an interdental cleaner to remove food particles and plaque between teeth once a day. Rinse with an antibacterial mouthwash twice a day. Antiseptic mouthwash can help kill bacteria that cause bad breath and plaque that can lead to gingivitis, an early, mild form of gum disease. Adding a fluoride rinse to your daily routine can help prevent tooth decay. Dentures should be removed at night and cleaned thoroughly before being placed in your mouth the next morning. Clean braces and retainers as directed by your dentist.
  • See your dentist regularly -- at least twice a year. They will do an oral exam and professional teeth cleaning and will be able to find and treat periodontal disease, dry mouth, or other problems that may be the cause of bad breath.
  • Stop smoking and chewing tobacco-based products. Ask your dentist for tips on kicking the habit.
  • Drink lots of water. This will keep your mouth moist. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless candy also stimulates the production of saliva, which helps wash away food particles and bacteria. Gums and mints containing xylitol are best.
  • Eat more fruits and vegetables and less meat. Apples, carrots, celery, and other hard fruits and vegetables help clear odor-causing plaque and food particles from your mouth.
  • Keep a log of the foods you eat. If you think they may be causing bad breath, bring the log to your dentist to review. Similarly, make a list of the medications you take. Some drugs may play a role in creating mouth odors.

Who Treats Bad Breath?

In most cases, your dentist can treat the cause of bad breath.

If your dentist determines that your mouth is healthy and the odor is not of oral origin, you may be referred to your family doctor or to a specialist to determine the odor source and treatment plan. You can go over a list of your medications with them to see if any of them could be contributing to the problem. Work with them to keep diabetes, allergies, and other conditions under control.

If the odor is due to gum disease, for example, your dentist can either treat the disease or refer you to a periodontist, a dentist who specializes in treating gum conditions.

What Products Can I Use to Eliminate Bad Breath?

An antiseptic mouthwash can help eliminate bacteria that cause bad breath. For dry mouth, your dentist might recommend artificial saliva. Ask your dentist about which product is best for you.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

International Dental Health Foundation: "Frequently Asked Questions: Bad Breath."

WorlDental.org: "The Truth About Halitosis, Bad Breath," "Bad Breath Causes and How to Get Rid of Bad Breath."

University of Maryland Medical Center: "Oral Health: Halitosis (Bad Breath)."

American Dental Association: "Bad Breath (Halitosis)," "Brushing Your Teeth."

American Academy of Family Physicians: "Halitosis: Overview."

Academy of General Dentistry: "What is Halitosis?" "Does a Smaller Waist Mean Smelly Breath?"

NutritionMD.org: "Allergic Rhinitis and Sinusitis."

American Dental Hygienists Association: "Bad Breath Fact Sheet."

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