Healthy Living

Give Bad Breath the Brush-Off

Nov. 24, 2015

What’s lurking behind that bad breath? And could it be a sign of a bigger health problem? Dental expert Dr. Jack Caton offers facts on the causes of halitosis—the medical name for bad breath—and what you can do to ward it off.

open mouth with mint leaves on tongue

Many people experience it but few of us want to talk about bad breath—especially when it’s somebody else’s. Bad breath can be local, transient or systemic.

  • Local means it’s just in your mouth. More often than not, this is temporary and easily fixed. It can be caused by eating certain foods or not cleaning your teeth and mouth properly.
  • Transient bad breath is a chronic problem. It can happen when the chemicals in strong foods, like garlic and onions, make their way into your bloodstream and lungs, and then linger on your breath.
  • Systemic means its cause is related to something else going on in your mouth or your body. It’s less common but also problematic, and is often a sign of a health problem like diabetes or other metabolic condition.

Whether simple or complex, there are steps you can take toward fresher breath. And while you may be tempted to turn to mints or gum, they’re a short-term fix at best.

Bacteria in your mouth can wreak havoc on your breath, signaling everything from leftover food particles to gum disease. Taking good care of your teeth and mouth is the first step to taming bad breath.

  1. Brush and floss regularly and properly, every day.
  2. Rinse your mouth throughout the day. A simple swish of water can remove food particles and promote better breath. Even drinking black coffee or tea (skip the cream and sugar) may help in a pinch, as can munching crispy fruits and vegetables that have a high water content.
  3. Clean your tongue. Its rough texture can collect microorganisms that grow, produce chemicals, and emit gas that affects your breath. You can use your toothbrush or a plastic tongue scraper to remove odor-causing bacteria.

If you’ve cleaned up your act but bad breath persists, you may need to dig deeper to get to the root of the problem.

Underlying causes may be periodontal (gum) disease, infected tonsils, or changes in your blood sugar. People with uncontrolled diabetes, or those on low carbohydrate diets (which can change the body’s biochemistry) may have persistent bad breath. Some medications may contribute to bad breath too—particularly those that may cause dry mouth as a side effect (such as antihistamines and diuretics). Since saliva helps clear away bacteria, less of it can result in more lingering bacteria.

Your mouth can mirror what’s going on in your body. If your bad breath continues despite your best mouth-cleaning efforts, you should consult your provider for help in finding its cause.


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Jack Caton, DDS


Jack G. Caton, D.D.S., M.S., is a professor of Dentistry at UR Medicine’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health and chair of its Periodontology Department.