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Battling bad breath

Published:Saturday | April 10, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Tenesha Handley gets her tongue cleaned with an Oolitt by Dr Carrie Brown during her six-month check-up. A study shows that using a tongue cleaner can reduce offensive mouth odour by up to 75 per cent.
William Anderson, sharing a kiss with wife Christine, says treatment for bad breath did him
The Halimeter measures sulfur content of breath, one of the indices of halitosis, or bad breath.

Heather Little-White, Contributor

There is hardly any pleasant way to tell someone about bad breath. Bad breath is very common, but it is embarrassing and unpleasant. Very often someone with bad breath tries to camouflage it with mints. The mere thought of bad breath is revolting enough to prevent persons from making intimate contact.

The odour is usually caused by decaying food particles and bacteria in your mouth. Bad breath may occur occasionally, but is sometimes so persistent that it creates problems. Bad breath is caused by the breakdown of proteins somewhere in the mouth but other factors can create the problem.

Chronic bad breath, known as halitosis, results from dental problems such as tooth decay or gum inflammation (gingivitis) or infections of the nose, gastro-oesophageal reflux, infections of the sinuses in what is known as rhinosinusitis, dry mouth and food stagnation between the teeth. Cancers of the oral cavity or throat may also lead to bad breath.

Chewing gum

If ever there is a time you want to chew gum, it is when you are suffering from bad breath.

"When you chew gum it makes you salivate, and the more saliva you have in your mouth, the fewer bacteria you have. It not only mechanically washes bacteria out, but we have antiseptic and enzymes in our saliva that kill bacteria," WebMD quoted Dr Stephen Wolmer, a New York dentist, as saying.

Believe it or not, saliva is your best weapon against bad breath. By washing away food particles and bacteria, saliva also helps to eliminate odours.

Morning bad breath

A not-so-fresh breath when you awaken in the morning results from the slowdown of saliva production while you sleep, thereby allowing particles trapped in the mouth to decompose longer and combine with dead cells shed from the surface of the tongue and gums. Luckily, morning breath generally disappears after breakfast and after brushing the teeth, because saliva starts to flow again and any leftover residue is washed away and swallowed.

A dry mouth because of ill health, or medications, often leads to bad mouth odour. More than 70 per cent of prescription medications may lead to bad breath through an eventual drying of the mouth. Mints are not so helpful in this regard, as they do not usually stimulate saliva production, only temporarily masking the odour.


Stress is another cause which may not be readily apparent when you are looking for reasons for bad breath. Stress affects the digestive system. An insufficient supply of digestive enzymes may be another cause.


The stomach is also an area that causes bad-breath problems for many people. Poor digestion, constipation, or bowel disorders may create gas which exits the mouth. Insufficient hydrochloric acid in the stomach may cause poor digestion, so undigested food will pass into the intestines, putrefy and give off foul gas, which rises up and causes bad breath. This problem is quite common with older people, whose bodies do not produce enough hydrochloric acid naturally to aid the digestion process.

Another common digestive problem is caused by the imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the gut. Food will not be digested properly, possibly resulting in acid reflux, yeast overgrowth or fermentation, resulting in bad breath.

Temporary bad breath

The commonest causes of occasional halitosis include smoking cigarettes or cigars, drinking alcohol or eating certain foods like onions, garlic, curries and cured foods like salami. In addition to making the breath smell like an ashtray, smoking also reduces the flow of saliva in its own right and, therefore, further exacerbates the problem of dry mouth.


Crash-dieting or fasting can also lead to temporary halitosis. When the body is no longer supplied with energy-giving carbohydrates, it first breaks down glucose stored in the muscles and liver in the form of glycogen. But this does not last long.

High-protein diet

However, after a few hours, the body resorts to ketosis, breaking down fat stores. The waste products of their metabolism, known as ketones, give the breath a distinctive sweet but sickly smell. You can smell this on the breath of anyone who has vigorously worked out and exercised, but who has not taken on-board sufficient carbohydrate before or after. People on a strict high-protein diet experience the same effect for similar reasons.

Next week we will take a look at some of the dietary choices, including supplements and herbal remedies, that can take your (bad) breath away.

Heather Little-White, PhD, is a nutrition and lifestyle consultant in Kingston. Send comments to



Detecting bad breath on your own is not easy, because your senses have trouble picking up your own smells, often until it gets really bad. Short of asking someone to judge if your breath is bad, try cupping your hands over your mouth, breathing out and then breathing in through the nose. A sour smell may indicate bad breath. It is helpful to ask your spouse or family member to check your breath to determine if there is a problem and to correct it before it escalates.


Brushing and flossing

Brushing and flossing your teeth is very important. It is even more critical to gently brush your tongue to get rid of even more bacteria. Brush your tongue twice a day with a toothbrush soaked in an antibacterial agent.

"Surprisingly, the tongue is microscopically like a shaggy carpet because of millions of filaments on your tongue that trap tiny food particles and bacteria," said Dr Wolmer, a New York dentist. (WebMD)

Wolmer suggests that you should get into the habit of regularly cleaning your tongue using a toothbrush, the edge of a spoon, or a tongue cleaner.

It is important to remove any oral devices before cleaning. If you have any mouth guards or oral devices, make sure to clean them thoroughly before putting them back into your mouth.


Cinnamon helps!

Dr Stephen Wolmer supports the use of cinnamon because
an ingredient in the flavour appears to actually decrease the bacteria
in your mouth. Sugarless gum is good for your health and chewing will
stimulate saliva production.

There are other steps to be taken in
preventing or treating bad breath.

If you have not have been
having regular dental check-ups, you should arrange for a thorough
dental examination. Do not mask oral odours before the visit by mints or

See an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who can
perform a detailed examination of the upper airway and digestive tract.
The ENT can use a fibre-optic scope to inspect the nasal cavity, throat
and voice box. Where there is doubt about early diagnoses, a CT scan may
be used to make further assessments.

An internist or family
practitioner can assess what problems may be associated with halitosis.
Conditions like kidney and liver failure may lead to bad breath.

Another way to improve your oral hygiene is to use a waterpik after
breakfast. Put an ounce of hydrogen peroxide in the water.

brushing your gums and tongue with some powdered cloves or myrrh.

Swirl water around in your mouth after each meal or snack. This will
reduce the food particles or drink residue (primarily sugar) that may
lead to bad breath.