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Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is a common problem that can affect anyone of any age. Most people have short periods of bad breath at some point, and it is estimated that up to 50% of people have persistent bad breath.
What causes bad breath?
Bad breath can have several causes:
See Bad breath - causes for more information.
Treating bad breath
Good oral hygiene is usually enough to prevent and treat bad breath. See Bad breath - treatment for more information.
Your dentist can advise you on how to improve your oral health and can refer you for further investigation if they think there may be another cause for your bad breath.
How to find out if you have bad breath
It can be difficult to know if you have bad breath. Other people usually notice it first, and they may find it difficult to tell you. If you are worried that you have bad breath, you could ask a close friend or family member to tell you honestly whether they think you have.
A simple test you can do yourself is to lick the inside of your wrist and wait for the saliva to dry. If the area you licked smells unpleasant, it is likely that your breath does too.^^ Back to top
There are several causes of bad breath.
Poor oral hygiene
The most common cause of bad breath is poor oral hygiene.
Bacteria that coat your teeth, tongue and gums can cause plaque (the soft white deposit that forms on the surface of the teeth), gum disease and dental decay. These bacteria combine with saliva and food in the mouth, breaking down food particles and proteins. This releases an unpleasant-smelling gas.
If you do not brush and floss your teeth regularly, any food that is trapped between your teeth will be broken down by the bacteria, causing bad breath.
These bacteria can also live in the rough surface of the tongue. Therefore, as well as brushing your teeth, cleaning your tongue can help control bad breath.
Any oral hygiene problems should be picked up and treated in regular check-ups with a dentist or hygienist.
Morning bad breath
Most people have bad breath when they wake up in the morning. This is normal and occurs because the mouth dries up overnight. This slows down the flow of saliva that normally washes away food particles. Bacteria quickly break down any bits of food left in the mouth, and an unpleasant, stale smell is released. The flow of saliva usually increases once you start eating.
Food and drink
Eating strongly flavoured foods, such as garlic, onions and spices, often cause your breath to smell. Strong-smelling drinks, such as alcohol and coffee, can also cause bad breath. This type of bad breath is usually temporary and can be easily avoided by not eating or drinking these types of food or drink. Good dental hygiene also helps.
Some medication can cause bad breath. Medicines that have been associated with bad breath include:
Talk to your GP about possible alternative medicines.
If you smoke, your breath is likely to smell of stale smoke. As well as making your breath smell, smoking also causes staining and loss of taste and irritates your gums. This increases your risk of gum disease, another cause of bad breath. Stopping smoking will lower this risk and help prevent bad breath.
Bad breath can be caused by a medical condition, although this is rare.
Dry mouth (xerostomia) is a condition that affects the flow of saliva. This can cause bacteria to build up in the mouth, leading to bad breath. Dry mouth can be caused by salivary gland problems or continually breathing through the mouth instead of the nose. As you get older, you may produce less saliva, which can lead to bad breath.
Other medical conditions that can cause bad breath include:
Crash dieting, fasting and low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkins diet, can also cause bad breath. These cause the body to break down fat, which produces chemicals called ketones that can be smelt on the breath.
Some people are convinced that they have bad breath when they do not. This psychological condition is known as halitophobia.
People with halitophobia are paranoid about the smell of their breath and often misinterpret other people's actions and comments, thinking that they are suggesting they have bad breath. They become fixated with cleaning their teeth, chewing gum and using mouth fresheners.
Treatment for halitophobia involves talking therapies and cognitive behavioural therapy to help the person overcome their paranoia and fixation on the smell of their breath.^^ Back to top
Treatment for bad breath depends on what is causing it.
The simplest and most effective treatment is usually improving your dental hygiene. To avoid bad breath, keep your mouth and teeth clean:
Keeping your teeth and mouth healthy
Your dentist is likely to recommend that you brush your teeth at least twice a day using toothpaste containing fluoride.
How can your dentist help?
Your dentist can recommend the best way to clean your teeth and gums and show you any areas you might be missing. Regular check-ups with your dentist will make sure any plaque is removed from your teeth, especially in hard-to-reach areas. It will also ensure any signs of gum disease are noted and treated early on.
If you wear dentures, take them out at night to give your mouth a chance to rest and clean them twice a day:
This routine should make sure your dentures stay fresh and clean and avoid the build-up of plaque, which could cause bad breath.^^ Back to top
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