Not So Fresh Breath

The causes, the cures, and how to know if you’ve got it

By Mimi Greenwood Knight


We’ve all found ourselves in conversation with someone and wondered, “How’s my breath?” Of course, the other side of the coin is wondering how the person you’re talking to doesn’t realize they’re breathing dragon breath in your face. Either way, halitosis can be a formula for social embarrassment.

What exactly causes bad breath, and what can you do about it? There are a number of possible culprits.

  • Foods such as garlic and onion

  • Dry mouth perhaps from medication

  • Smoking or chewing tobacco

  • Some medical conditions

  • Untreated tooth decay or gum disease

  • Poorly fitting dental appliances

Think of bad breath as any other type of body odor, usually a social problem more than a medical one. If you have B.O., you take a shower. As you clean your body, you reduce the bacteria population under your arm, eliminating the odor. In the same way, brushing and flossing your teeth reduces and scatters the bacteria in your mouth, usually eliminating bad breath. One way to test your breath and see if you have a problem is to take a dry, clean unscented cloth and scrub your tongue as far back as you can for about five seconds. Wait thirty seconds, then smell the cloth. You can also ask your partner or a close friend to be honest with you about it. And your dentist should feel comfortable telling you.


According to the American Dental Association (ADA), 90% of bad breath originates from bacteria on the tongue. Because our tongues consist of tiny hills, valleys, and crevices, it’s the perfect environment for bacteria to thrive. If you suffer from chronic nasal drip, bacteria are even more at home. And since bacteria like to congregate at the back of your tongue, it’s important to attack it at its source. Just as you take time to floss and brush your teeth, devote some time to brushing your tongue, as far back as you can tolerate. Invest in a tongue scraper and use it, first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, also as far back as you can stand.

Other than that, you can:

  • Be diligent about regular professional cleanings and check-ups.

  • Drink plenty of liquids.

  • Chew sugar-free gum.

  • Use a saline nose spray to break up mucus and moisturize nasal passages.

  • Ask your dentist to recommend an ADA-approved mouthwash.

If your dentist determines your teeth and gums aren’t the sources of your bad breath, consult with your primary care doctor to make sure odor isn’t caused by pneumonia or bronchitis, chronic sinus infections, postnasal drip, diabetes, chronic acid reflux, gastrointestinal issues, and liver or kidney problems. Lastly, there are a few home remedies you can try. Gargle with water and either apple cider vinegar, tea tree oil, or salt. Or carry a few cloves that you can chew on (but don’t swallow) whenever you’re worried your breath might not score an A+.

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