It’s no fun having bad breath—for you or for anyone standing anywhere near you. It can put a real damper on your social life.
But popping a mint or swishing around mouthwash isn’t always the right answer. It might only mask the problem that’s really causing your bad breath—or halitosis. And it’s only when you get to the bottom of what’s causing your bad breath that you can eliminate it for good.
Let’s take a look at what bad breath says about your health, how your breath can give us invisible clues as to whether you’re suffering from certain diseases and what you can do when your breath cries foul.
What Causes Bad Breath?
There are a lot of reasons why your breath might not smell like a bouquet of roses, some more surprising than others. One of the most common reasons is simply that bacteria in your mouth are breaking down the food you’ve eaten. This process releases foul-smelling gases researchers call volatile sulfur compounds. Onion, garlic, eggs and cabbage smell especially strong, but other foods can produce unpleasant aromas too.
In some cases, however, the answer isn’t as simple as what you ate for dinner. The way a person’s breath smells can serve as a red flag to get tested for certain diseases.
Breath that smells fishy or like urine or ammonia is a sign of kidney failure.
Diabetics whose breath smells fruity or like nail polish remover should visit their doctor immediately to test for diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening condition. Diabetic ketoacidosis is caused when cells in the pancreas don’t produce enough insulin. The body then switches from insulin as an energy source to fatty acids. This results in the production of acidic ketones, which can build up in the blood and cause a diabetic coma or death.
It Often Starts in the Stomach
Another culprit causing bad breath may be a stomach infection with the bacterium known as Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). H. pylori causes stomach cancer and ulcers, and bad breath may be a warning sign that it’s present. H. pylori is more common in developing countries, with up to 70 percent of people infected.
According to the researchers, “Our findings suggest that eradication of gastric H. pylori significantly alleviates halitosis and coated tongue. . . .”
The Heartburn-Halitosis Connection
People who have a condition known as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) often have problems with bad breath.
Researchers tested 132 patients complaining of upper GI symptoms. The patients who had bad breath were more likely to have more severe heartburn, regurgitation and belching. The 72 patients who had GERD also were more likely to have bad breath.
Gum Disease, Cavities and Bad Breath
Gum disease—or periodontal disease—may leave a bad odor behind in your mouth. The same bacteria responsible for gum disease can reside on your tongue too, and its presence in tongue coatings can cause bad breath.Even cavities can cause a bad case of halitosis.
Morning Breath and Sleep Apnea
Morning breath is caused by reduced saliva production while you sleep. Without the antibacterial properties of the saliva, odor-producing bacteria have free reign of your mouth.
But people who have obstructive sleep apnea, a condition that causes people to stop breathing intermittently throughout the night, may sleep with their mouth open, causing even more saliva to dry up overnight. In one study, of 744 people with sleep apnea, 30.4 percent had bad breath.Some studies have found that people who have sleep apnea are more likely to also have periodontal disease, a condition that is also linked to bad breath.
Sinus infection and Post Nasal Drip
Chronic low grade sinus infections drain post nasal to the back of the throat not only causing mucous congestion but odour from the infection. Often driven by allergies and fungal infections, treating the sinus infection often eases bad breath.
Wiping Out Bad Breath
The best solutions for bad breath are to get rid of the problem permanently. Breath mints only work temporarily, and they’re usually loaded with sugar, which isn’t good for your teeth. And mouthwash may work, but antibacterial mouthwashes like Listerine® not only kill the bad bacteria in your mouth, but also kill the beneficial bacteria too, leaving your mouth vulnerable to gum disease.
If the cause of your bad breath is something as simple as decaying food, brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing once a day and getting regular dental cleanings can really help.
Xylitol mints and xylitol gum offer another solution for those times when your breath smells less than sweet. Unlike sugar, xylitol has some long-lasting beneficial effects. It not only directly freshens the breath, but it also inhibits mutans streptococci, the bacteria responsible for gum disease and tooth decay. Xylitol lowers levels of mutans streptococci in plaque and saliva because these bacteria are unable to use xylitol as an energy source. Xylitol also stops the bacteria from sticking to the tooth surface and stops the bacteria from producing acid that wears down the tooth’s surface.To reduce cavities, aim for 6 to 10 grams per day.
If you suffer from chronic bad breath, it’s a good idea to get checked out by a dentist and a health practitioner who can test you for other conditions such as an H. pylori infection, gum disease, cavities, diabetes, sinus infections, sleep apnea or kidney disease.
Taking a good probiotic can help sweeten up your breath. In one study, researchers gave the probiotic Lactobacillus salivarius along with the sweetener xylitol in tablet form to 20 subjects who suffered from halitosis. After two weeks of taking the probiotic, the subjects’ bad breath decreased. Their gums were also healthier, with less bleeding during probing.
Finally, using a tongue scraper to remove the coating on your tongue can help freshen your breath. By cleaning the tongue, you can get rid of 70 percent of oral sulfide gases, which play a role in bad breath.
Invisible Clues to Your Health
Bad breath isn’t always just a sign that you need to brush your teeth. Sometimes, it’s a clue that something else is wrong such as gum disease, an H. pylori infection or diabetic complications. By doing some detective work, we can read the clues your breath is leaving behind to figure out why you have bad breath in the first place.