Bad Breath

Medically Reviewed by Amita Shroff, MD on August 28, 2022
4 min read

More than 70% of teens say bad breath is an instant turnoff. About 85% say it's the most important thing to avoid when meeting someone for the first time. And while bad breath can be treated and avoided, you often don't even know that you have it!

Bad breath (called halitosis) is a common problem not only for teens, but also for everyone. So what exactly is it, what causes it, and, most important, how can you get rid of it?

Bad breath has a variety of causes, including:

In most cases, bad breath comes from the gums and tongue. Some bacteria in your mouth may produce compounds that result in an odor.

Certain foods, such as garlic and onions, not only leave lasting odors in your mouth, but are also absorbed into the bloodstream. The odors are then expelled from the lungs. Until these foods are eliminated from the body, mouthwash, chewing gum, and toothpaste can only mask the odors on the breath.

For some people, a dry mouth causes bad breath. Dry mouth can result from taking antihistamines for allergies or a cold, or from antidepressants. It can also result from localized infections, diabetes, gastrointestinal disturbances, or liver or kidney ailments.

The postnasal drip that streams down the back of your throat during colds, allergies, or sinus infections can result in bad breath. Sometimes, tiny food nuggets lodge in the crypts of your tonsils or on the tongue and cause a foul odor.

But most bad breath is the result of poor oral hygiene. Basically, that means you don't brush or floss frequently enough. How many times have you heard that from your dentist?

Bacteria that build up on the back of your tongue or in between your teeth are the main culprits. Certain types of bacteria love to breed on the tongue, in the crevices between your teeth, or in untreated cavities.

Finally -- yet most important -- tobacco products cause bad breath. If you smoke tobacco or chew smokeless tobacco, ask your dentist or your primary health care professional for tips on kicking the habit.

Believe it or not, the most common method doesn't work to diagnose your own bad breath. Many teens think that they can blow into their hands and smell their breath. That simply doesn't work.

Instead, do this. Lick the back of your hand, let the saliva dry, then take a whiff. What you smell there is your true breath.

Another good way? If you have a trusted friend, ask them to smell your breath. Parents can also tell you if you ask.

Here are some tips for controlling bad breath.

  • Practice good oral hygiene. Brush and floss after every meal, or at least twice a day. Brush for two minutes each time. Proper brushing also involves brushing your tongue, cheeks, and the roof of your mouth to remove bacteria and food particles. Flossing removes bacteria, plaque, and food particles that may be trapped between teeth. Many dentists and dental hygienists also recommend cleaning your tongue with a tongue scraper, a plastic or metal tool that scrapes away bacteria that builds up on the tongue. Mouthwashes and rinses can also temporarily relieve bad breath.
  • Remember your retainer. If you wear a retainer or have some kind of removable appliance, clean it thoroughly each time you brush. If you have braces, take extra time and care to clean all the nooks and crannies. Your orthodontist is a good source of information about keeping your braces clean.
  • Chew sugar-free gum. Chewing sugar-free gum helps stimulate saliva. This helps cleanse the teeth and gums and prevents dry mouth.
  • Stop using tobacco. Get help and kick the habit.
  • Use an antibacterial mouthwash. Gargling once or twice a day is good for teeth and gums and kills bad-breath bacteria in your mouth.


While there is no dental specialty that deals just with bad breath, your family dentist should be able to address most of your concerns about oral hygiene.

If your dentist determines that your mouth is healthy, they may refer you to a general physician or a specialist to determine the cause of your bad breath. Your doctor can tell you if you are taking medications that can cause dry mouth, or if you have other medical conditions that may make you more likely to have dry mouth and bad breath.

Seeing your dentist regularly (at least every six months) and following their advice will reduce or eliminate any bad breath problems you may have. Then you won't have to worry about those potential "close encounters."