No one likes to hear it, but it's worse not to know it: You have bad breath.
Bad breath (also known as halitosis or malodor) can be embarrassing and tough on those around you. Some people don't realize their breath could peel paint because people are afraid to tell them.
"Certainly bad breath can ruin relationships," John Woodall, DDS, a dentist with Woodall and McNeill in Raleigh, N.C., tells WebMD.
Fortunately, this problem is often easy to fix. What helps: Good oral hygiene, regular visits to your dentist, and ruling out any underlying conditions or other factors (such as some medications, diets, and foods) that could make your breath less than pleasant.
Do You Have Bad Breath?
Bad breath is often caused by a buildup of bacteria in your mouth that causes inflammation and gives off noxious odors or gases that smell like sulfur -- or worse.
Everybody has nasty breath at some point, like when you get out of bed in the morning.
Not sure if your breath is bad? The best way to find out is to ask a trusted friend or your significant other, "'Does my breath smell?' Because it's really hard to tell on your own," Tina Frangella, DDS, a dentist with Frangella Dental in New York, tells WebMD.
There's another way to know. It may seem a bit gross, but look at and smell your dental floss after you use it.
"If your floss smells or there is blood on it, then there are foul odors in your mouth," Woodall says.
What Causes Bad Breath?
There are no statistics on what percentage of the population has bad breath. That's because studies usually rely on someone reporting whether or not they think they have bad breath and may not be accurate.
But studies show that about 80% of bad breath comes from an oral source. For instance, cavities or gum disease can lead to bad breath, as can tonsils that have trapped food particles; cracked fillings, and less-than-clean dentures.
Several internal medical conditions also can cause your breath to go downhill fast. They include diabetes, liver disease, respiratory tract infections, and chronic bronchitis. You'll want to see your doctor to rule out things like acid reflux, postnasal drip, and other causes of chronic dry mouth (xerostomia).
Woodall recalls a 30-year-old patient who had chronic bad breath, though her teeth were "immaculate" and her tongue was very clean. Her doctor tested her for acid reflux and other stomach conditions, "gave her some medicine, and her bad breath went away," Woodall says.
See Your Dentist, Take Care of Your Teeth and Gums
Nixed medical causes for your bad breath? Keep your scheduled dental appointments.
"You really want to see your dentist every six months or at least yearly," Frangella says.
Good oral hygiene also is key to fighting bad breath. Ideally, you should brush and floss after every meal to help reduce the odor-causing bacteria in your mouth. While a regular toothbrush works just as well if you use it as recommended, Frangella recommends using an electric toothbrush, for two reasons.
"First, because many electric toothbrushes have timers on them and the majority of people do not brush their teeth for the right length of time. And secondly, because electric toothbrushes distribute a uniform motion, which I find helps remove plaque more efficiently than when my patients use manual toothbrushes."
Some mouthwashes or mouth rinses can help prevent cavities and reduce bacteria-causing plaque and fight bad breath. Stick to an antiseptic or antibacterial rinse that kills bacteria, rather than a cosmetic rinse that just focuses on freshening the breath.
Watch What You Eat
What you eat affects what you exhale. That's because as food is digested, it's absorbed into your bloodstream and then is expelled by your lungs when you breathe.
Eat a healthy, balanced diet and regular meals. Certain diets -- such as extreme fasting and very low-carb diets -- can give you bad-smelling breath.
Consider snacking on raw carrots, celery, or apple slices. "It's good to have a nice watery vegetable in there - something like celery - that will help clear your mouth of debris," Frangella says.
Avoid breath busters such as garlic, onions, and some other spicy foods. Chronic garlic users cannot only have chronic bad breath, they also often have body odor, Woodall says.
Six More Ways to Fix Bad Breath
Here are a half dozen more ways to banish bad breath - hopefully for good.
- Stay hydrated. If you can't brush your teeth after a meal, drinking a lot of water can help speed up the process of cleaning harmful bacteria and debris from between your teeth. Drinking milk can even help deodorize some offensive breath odors, Frangella says. Avoid sugary drinks.
- Don't drink too much coffee. It may be tasty, but coffee is a tough smell to get off the back of your tongue. Consider switching to an herbal or green tea, Frangella says.
- Don't smoke or use other tobacco products. Cigarettes, pipes, and snuff can foul your breath. "Smoking can give people horrible breath," Woodall says. "And some people carry this stuff worse than others."
- Cut back on alcohol. Alcohol can lead to a dry mouth. Too much beer, wine, and hard liquor can make your breath reek for up to eight to 10 hours after you finish drinking, Woodall says.
- Chew sugarless gum. Doing so 20 minutes after a meal can help with saliva flow. Gum that's 100% xylitol-sweetened can help reduce cavities, but it's also "kind of cooling and gives you really nice fresh breath," Frangella says.
- Be careful with breath mints. Sugar-free mints are OK for a quick fix but only mask the offensive smell and don't do anything to remove harmful bad bacteria. Tempted to pick up a sugary mint as you leave your favorite restaurant? Don't. The sugar will only sit on your teeth and make the problem worse, Frangella says.