We've all found ourselves chatting with someone whose breath could easily wilt a flower. It's difficult to know how common bad breath is, but according to one study, it could affect up to 50% of people at some point in their lives. That's a lot of wilted flowers.
Nine times out of 10, bad breath is caused by bacteria in the mouth, which is hardly surprising as the mouth is the ideal breeding ground for bacteria—it's warm (37C) and humid (96% humidity).
About 500 different types of bacteria are found in the human mouth, and most of them are capable of making the sulphurous compounds that cause bad breath.
Saliva has antibacterial substances which keep these bacteria at a manageable level. Saliva is also good at flushing out bits of food that are left in our mouth after eating. It is for these two reasons that a dry mouth is often accompanied by bad breath.
"Everyone's has bad breath in the morning because during the night your salivary glands almost shut down, so you wake up in the morning with a dry mouth," explains Dr Peter Frost, an honorary senior specialist clinical teacher at King's College London Dental Institute. "People who are 'mouth-breathers'— and that includes people who snore—are particularly prone to having a dry mouth when they wake up."
"If somebody had bad breath, we typically ask if they have had facial pain underneath their eyes and on their forehead," says Dr Anton Emmanuel, consultant gastroenterologist at University College Hospital. "Those two areas are where your sinuses are. And sometimes chronic sinusitis can cause bad breath."
People with chronic sinusitis often have post-nasal drip, which is when the excess mucus produced by the sinuses drips down the throat and coats the back of the tongue with a layer of mucus. This bacteria-rich mucus gives off a foul odour.
Some people use tongue scrapers (see below) to remove the mucus from their tongue, but this is only a temporary solution. If you suspect that you have chronic (long-term) sinusitis, you should seek medical advice.
Certain foods, such as garlic and onions, can also cause bad breath. Some people think that the smell of garlic is coming from their stomach, but it actually comes from their mouth. The oils in garlic and onion adhere to the teeth and tongue and linger for a long time.
Treating bad breath
Most of the time, bad breath is short lived and can easily be treated. Here are some tips for banishing bad breath.
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