3 Tips for Bad Breath

What is the cause of bad breath? What can be done about it aside from joining a monastary?

Rob Lamberts, MD
6-minute read
Episode #13

Today I am going to turn my attention to a problem that is wreaking havoc all over our fair planet.

What to Do About Bad Breath

Today’s topic comes from a reader, who, for confidentiality’s sake, I’ll refer to as Hal. Hal writes:

Dear Dr. Lamberts,

I have a rather embarrassing problem. I suffer from terrible mouth odor. I regularly brush my teeth and floss, yet after almost every meal my mouth reeks. I was wondering if this is related to any other disorder or whether it could lead to any further disorders. I would really appreciate it if you could suggest some remedies.

Thanks for your bold honesty, Hal. I am sure there are a lot of others out there interested in the answer to this pervasive problem. Bad breath, called halitosis by people who like big words, is a very common problem. I make my living by having people open their mouths and say “ah.” Trust me; it’s a big problem (I'll be covering that other big problem, body odor, in another episode).

Here are my quick and dirty tips for dealing with bad breath:

  1. Observe good oral hygeine
  2. Keep it moist
  3. Consider other medical problems

Let's break that down a bit. 

How Do You Know if You Have Bad Breath?

But before talking about how your bad breath can be treated, we first need to be sure of your diagnosis. That may seem obvious, but it’s not as easy as you think. You may have noticed that it’s very hard to smell your own breath. People cup their hands and blow out to check it, but often they are sadly mistaken at the freshness of their breath.

Why can’t you smell your own breath? The answer lies in the nature of the sense of smell. Your smell receptors in your olfactory bulb, which resides in your nasal canal, are very sensitive. But you wouldn’t want to smell every smell all the time; you just want to smell new smells. So your smell receptors turn themselves off when an odor persists. That can be bad news when it comes to your breath.

The funny thing is, nearly a quarter of people who seek medical attention for bad breath, don’t actually have bad breath. That is a condition called halophobia. So if you think you have a problem, find someone you trust to give you an honest assessment. If you can’t find anyone to give you this opinion, you probably have bigger problem than just your breath.

What Causes Bad Breath?

So once you’ve established that you do in fact possess the breath that launched a thousand ships, the next thing is to find out the cause.

The main cause of bad breath is the presence of bacteria in the mouth that put off foul-smelling substances. Bacteria put off these chemicals as a normal byproduct of life. Some of the more notorious chemicals cause the following aromatic smells:

  • Rotting meat

  • Rotten eggs

  • Smelly feet

  • The smell that makes you light a match when you leave the bathroom

  • Rotting of living flesh

Am I implying that breath odor has elements of rotting meat, stinky feet, rotten eggs, and… uh … other stuff? Yes, I actually am. The bacteria that produce these smells usually live in small numbers in your mouth-- but sometimes they get their numbers high enough to make their presence known. That’s when bad breath happens.

How to Get Rid of Bad Breath

The key to fixing the problem of bad breath is to locate its source. The most common source is the mouth itself: it’s the location of the smell-producing bacteria about 85% of the time. Since the mouth is regularly filled of food, the bacteria in there can get an all-you-can eat buffet under the right conditions. What gives the right conditions? Two things are at the core:

  1. Poor oral hygiene

  2. Insufficient saliva

Brushing and flossing is the key to maintaining good mouth odor. But a decreased flow of saliva is not something most people consider. Saliva serves to rinse the mouth, clearing it of bacteria and leftover food. Without that, the breath gets bad quickly. A good example of this is our old friend “morning breath,” which happens because we don’t produce as much saliva during the night.

What About Bad Breath That Won’t Go Away?

The nasal passages, including the sinus cavities, are also a common source of bad breath. If you have bad breath that is difficult to treat, you may have a sinus infection brewing. But you don’t necessarily have to have the usual symptoms of sinus infection, as sinusitis can be present at low levels and be otherwise asymptomatic.

Oh yes, and small children with bad breath should have their nasal passages thoroughly examined, as they are sometimes used as a storage place for peas, meat, crayons, and other small objects. The decay of these or the infection caused by the blockage can cause significant bad breath. I hope this isn’t your problem, Hal.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.