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Bad Breath (Halitosis): Bacterial Origins and Scents


Bad breath, or halitosis, is a very common oral health problem. People of any age may have halitosis, including:

  • Those who practice poor dental hygiene.
  • The elderly, disabled people and young children, who find dental hygiene difficult.
  • People who use mouth appliances, including dental braces and dentures.
  • Smokers are more prone to halitosis and periodontal disease (another contributor to bad breath).
  • People with certain medical conditions, including tooth decay, impacted teeth, abscessed teeth, periodontal disease, alcoholism, uncontrolled diabetes, kidney disease, sinusitis, throat and lung infections (such as bronchitis), post-nasal drip, allergies and dry mouth. Dry mouth may result from a high-protein diet, non-fibrous diet or medical condition.
  • People on certain medications, including certain vitamin supplements, antihistamines, calcium blockers, cardiac medications, blood pressure pharmaceuticals and psychiatric drugs. These substances can inhibit saliva flow or produce dry mouth, which may lead to halitosis. Dry mouth may also lead to excessive thirst and tooth decay – a good foundation for halitosis once again.
  • Poor dieters who are dehydrated because of certain foods they eat may have bad breath. Foods that contribute to halitosis include diet soda, onions, spices, garlic, curry, cabbage and coffee. High-protein food debris lodged between the teeth can produce halitosis as well.

Bacterial Origins

Researchers have determined that bad breath typically begins when the waste produced by bacteria in the mouth, nose or stomach comes into contact with the air.

Nasal dysfunction, including a genetic abnormality in the nasal passage, may inhibit proper mucus flow. The bacteria found in sinusitis, post-nasal drip and allergies may pass from the nose to the back of the tongue where it can lie dormant due to improper saliva flow or poor dental hygiene.

When bacterial plaque is not removed from the teeth, the gums or between the teeth, it continues to grow and ultimately may lead to halitosis, tooth decay and gum disease.

Bacterial Scents

Biologists have found that numerous types of bacteria contribute to halitosis. All of these bacteria are found in other types of unpleasant odors, including corpse scent (a combination of oxygen and sulfur compounds and/or nitrogen-containing gases such as cadaverine), decayed meat (putrescine), rotten egg stench (hydrogen sulfide), smelly feet (isovaleric acid), as well as feces aroma (methyl mercaptan and skatole).

To think that such scents could be emanating from your mouth is unpleasant indeed, illustrating the importance of proper dental hygiene and regular dental check-ups.

Bad Breath Solutions: Hygiene, Diet and Breath Aids

Simply put, good dental hygiene prevents halitosis that originates in the mouth. Food debris between your teeth and around your gums creates an ideal environment for the bacteria that cause bad breath, so you need to remove it often.

Brush your teeth at least twice a day, and floss between each tooth daily, if not more often. Your dentist will tell you that brushing and flossing are particularly important after high-protein meals or other meals that trigger foul breath and dehydration.

Use antiseptic mouthwash in the morning, before bedtime and after eating, to reduce halitosis-causing bacteria growth. Antiseptic mouthwash ingredients vary from one product to another and may include chlorhexidine, chlorine dioxide, zinc chloride and oils (such as eucalyptus oil).

Tongue scrapers are also useful in managing bad breath. Scrape the mucus off the back of the tongue, where bacteria may be present; do it gently, to avoid damage to the tongue.

If you have dental braces, dentures or other dental appliances, follow your dental professional's specific instructions for cleaning these appliances in order to avoid bad breath. This is especially true when it comes to appliances that you remove at night.

Maintain a Proper Diet

Diet plays a significant role in dental hygiene. Certain foods can promote saliva flow to limit the possibility of halitosis; one example is fibrous foods such as raw vegetables. And eating a healthy breakfast every morning starts saliva flow after a night's sleep when bacteria and odor tend to build up in your mouth.

Staying hydrated through sufficient water intake is also important for bad breath prevention. Sodas, juices and other drinks that are high in sugar and acid, however, will encourage growth of bacteria that cause bad breath.

Use Bad Breath Aids

Mouthwashes, mints and gum can freshen breath in the short term, but they can't prevent bad breath altogether. You may want to try these bad breath aids as well:

  • Straws can send sugary or sticky liquids past the teeth and tongue, so they can't stay in the mouth and house bacteria. Straws are especially useful for the elderly, small children and disabled people, for whom proper dental hygiene may be difficult.
  • For dry mouth sufferers, over-the-counter and prescription medications can help. Certain toothpastes, toothbrushes, mouth rinses and breath sprays are also made to relieve dry mouth. Ask your dentist which ones would be best for you.

If you have bad breath, discolored mucus, colored blotches or bumps on your tongue, it may be a sign of a serious medical condition such as oral thrush, oral herpes or oral cancer. See your doctor and dentist for a diagnosis.





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    Kenneth A Ingber, DMD

    Washington, DC 20006
    (202) 331-7474

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    Dr. Ivory Hancock

    Washington, DC 20036
    (202) 737-7025

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    Dr. Scott Shalit

    Garnet Valley, PA 19060
    (610) 459-5859

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    Dr. Dan David

    Phoenixville, PA 19460
    (610) 935-1015

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    Dr. Lon Kessler

    Phoenixville, PA 19460
    (610) 933-3342