Before the 1920s, people just lived with bad breath. It wasn’t until Listerine created a marketing campaign using a dusty old word called “halitosis”—“halitus” from the Latin word for “breath” and “-osis” from the Greek word for “diseased” or a condition of”–that made people think they needed treatment. Bad breath went from a pesky, personal problem to an embarrassing social stigma.
What causes bad breath?Simply put, bad breath is caused by odor-producing bacteria that grow in the mouth. However, there are a multitude of variables that contribute to when and how that bacteria develops in your mouth and how long it’s allowed to stay in your mouth, factors that all impact the way your breath smells. Bad breath may be most commonly associated with poor oral hygiene, but there are myriad reasons why your breath stinks, such as: Food. Onions and garlic have a bad rap for causing bad breath, but the stink here doesn’t come from food particles left behind. Both of these foods leave an oil that absorbs into the lungs and the smell is released with breathing, not speaking. Other offenders in this category include coffee and alcohol. Alcohol also dries out the mouth and reduces saliva production, both of which contribute to bacteria growth in the mouth. Coffee does the same thing, while adding tannins, sulfuric compounds, and acidic compounds into the mix, exacerbating the problem. Tobacco. Smoking leaves its own unpleasant smell, but smokers and oral tobacco users are at a higher risk for gum disease, another leading cause of bad breath. Because smoking affects your sense of smell, you might not notice bad breath when it’s present. Gum Disease. When the cavity-causing bacteria called plaque coats your teeth it can irritate your gums. If left alone, it can form sticky plaque-filled pockets below your gum line, trapping the odor. Dry Mouth. Saliva plays an important role in your oral health by cleansing your mouth and removing bad breath causing particles. Ever been accused of morning breath? This is your culprit. Dry mouth naturally occurs during sleep and gets worse if you sleep with your mouth open. Medications. There are more than 1,800 prescription medications that list dry mouth as a common side effect, but some medications cause bad breath when they’re broken down by the body, releasing chemicals carried out on your breath. Infections in the nose and throat. Occasionally, the bad breath source can come from small stones made by your tonsils that are mostly harmless but produce a strong odor. Tonsil stones are small lumps that form in the tonsils and can cause earaches, sore throat, and a cough. Other indicators of tonsil stones are bad breath and a foul taste in your mouth. Tonsil stones develop when bacteria, food particles, and dead cells get trapped in the mucous membranes that line the nooks and crannies of the tonsils. The trapped materials stick together, forming hard calcium deposits. They are more common in adults and in people who have had long-term inflammation in the tonsils or frequent recurrent tonsil infections. Infections or chronic inflammation in the nose, sinus, or throat can also contribute towards bad breath. Medical conditions. Despite brushing and flossing regularly, some medical conditions can cause unique, unpleasant mouth odors. Diabetes, liver or kidney disease, some cancers and gastric reflux each carry their own strange scent on the breath.
How do I know if I have bad breath?Trying to find out if your breath stinks can be tricky. For starters, you can:
- Ask. Find someone you trust and feel comfortable with, like a friend, partner, or family member, and ask if they’ve noticed any bad breath coming from you. You can also ask your dentist at your next checkup; not only can they give you a good answer, they can also help you determine what’s causing your bad breath and give you recommendations for how to treat it and prevent it in the future.
- Take a sniff. Sometimes smelling your floss or tongue scraper after you use them can give you an idea of what’s going on with your breath. If they smell bad, it’s because they’re removing bad-smelling bacteria from your mouth. Another quick—albeit slightly less accurate—test is to lick your wrist, let it dry for a moment, then smell it.
- Take an educated guess. If you can still taste something you ate, chances are other people can smell it. Or, if your mouth feels dry or your tongue feels thick, that’s a good sign that something is going on in your mouth that is allowing bacteria to breed and cause bad breath. Try brushing your teeth, drinking water, and rinsing your mouth out.