Bad Breath: Causes and Cures

Bad Breath: Causes and Cures

A whiff of bad breath can hint at matters more serious than a meal of onions and garlic or a skipped tooth brushing. Foul exhalations warn of gum disease, dry mouth, and other unhealthy medical conditions.

Unfortunately, even the healthiest of bodies suffer from morning breath.

"Nobody's going to wake up in the morning with flowers in their mouth," said Walter Bretz, an associate professor at New York University College of Dentistry.

Cavities and tongues with deep grooves serve as prime reservoirs for bacteria we commonly call plaque. The bacteria produces volatile sulphur compounds that give a person bad breath, or halitosis. A malodorous mouth can be a warning sign of gum disease, which is caused by plaque.

Brushing your teeth, and even your tongue, helps scrub away the bad bacteria.

Floss factor

Dentists also often urge patients to get at the tricky spots in between teeth by flossing. However, according to Bretz, no research had ever been conducted to measure what daily floss can accomplish.

In a recent study of twins ages 12 to 21, Bretz had one group brush their teeth and tongue regularly. The other group added a daily floss to the regimen. After just two weeks, the flossers had better breath and less gum bleeding than their siblings who weren't flossing.

The findings were published online on August 1 in the Journal of Periodontology.

Garlic breath

Sometimes even flossing can't improve bad breath. Just a bite of certain foods can turn a breath offensive.

The odor from an Italian feast garnished with onions and garlic can last long after the meal is eaten. Food gets absorbed into your bloodstream and travels into the lungs, where more smelly exhalations come from.

Mouthwash and chewing gum will only mask the scent for a short while because the stench will continue until the food passes through your body.

A foul warning sign

An unhealthy mouth often signals an unhealthy body. For example, scientists directly correlate gum disease and heart disease. Research has determined that other diseases and health problems produce halitosis as a side effect.

"Bad breath is no laughing matter and can actually be an indication of more serious health concerns such as infections," said dentist Louis Malcmacher, who has a private practice in Cleveland, Ohio.

Dry mouth, a condition where the body doesn't produce saliva, keeps the body from flushing reeking bacteria out of the mouth. At night, we all essentially have dry mouth. No one produces saliva when they sleep, which is why we all wake up with morning breath.

Cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy frequently experience dry mouth.

An elderly patient with halitosis and constant dry mouth could face even more complications, Bretz said. With dry mouth comes difficulty swallowing; the patient could easily send food down the wrong tube to the lungs, which may lead to pneumonia.

Kidney failure, diabetes, hormonal changes, and lung problems may also cause halitosis. Tobacco contributes to a stinky smokers' exhale.

Diet contributes

Stomach problems, such as difficulty metabolizing fatty acids and infrequent trips to the toilet, can produce bad breath. It's also a smelly side effect of dieting and infrequent eating.

A recent study at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health found followers of low-carbohydrate diets, such as the Atkin's diet, suffer from halitosis.

To find out whether you should be concerned about your bad breath, Bretz recommends visiting a dentist or periodontist. Brush properly with an electrical toothbrush, which cleans teeth much for efficiently than the old fashioned, manually powered technique. Floss regularly and rinse with a fluoride mouthwash on a daily basis to help prevent tooth decay.

Corey Binns lives in Northern California and writes about science, health, parenting, and social change. In addition to writing for Live Science, she's contributed to publications including Popular Science,, Scholastic, and the Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as others. She's also produced stories for NPR’s Science Friday and Sundance Channel. She studied biology at Brown University and earned a Master's degree in science journalism from NYU. The Association of Health Care Journalists named her a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Health Journalism Fellow in 2009. She has chased tornadoes and lived to tell the tale.