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Bad breath (halitosis)

Bad breath, or halitosis, is common and affects around one in four people.

Bad breath can be due to dental health habits, smelly foods, some health conditions and medications.

How does what you eat affect breath?

The food you eat begins to be broken down in your mouth and affects the breath, especially if you eat food with strong odours, such as garlic or onions.

Why do poor habits cause bad breath?

If you don't brush and floss your teeth daily, food particles can remain in your mouth, which promotes bacterial growth between teeth, around the gums and on the tongue. This causes bad breath. In addition, odour-causing bacteria and food particles can cause bad breath if the teeth or dentures are not properly cleaned.

Smoking or chewing tobacco-based products can also cause bad breath, stained teeth, reduce your ability to taste foods and irritate the gums.

What health problems are associated with bad breath?

Persistent bad breath or a bad taste in your mouth may be warning signs of gum (periodontal) disease. Gum disease is caused by the build-up of plaque on teeth. The bacteria cause toxins to form in the mouth, which irritate the gums. If gum disease continues untreated, it can damage the gums and jawbone.

Other dental causes of bad breath include poorly fitting dental appliances, yeast infections of the mouth and dental caries.

The medical condition dry mouth (also called xerostomia) can also cause bad breath. Saliva is necessary to moisten and cleanse the mouth by neutralising acids produced by plaque and washing away dead cells that accumulate on the tongue, gums, and cheeks. If not removed, these cells decompose and can cause bad breath. Dry mouth may be caused by the side effects of various medications, salivary gland problems or continuous breathing through the mouth.

Many other diseases and illnesses may cause bad breath. Here are some to be aware of: respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia or bronchitis, chronic sinus infections, postnasal drip, diabetes, chronic acid reflux, and liver or kidney problems.

What can I do to prevent bad breath?

Bad breath can be reduced or prevented if you:

  • Practise good oral hygiene. Brush twice a day with fluoride toothpaste and floss to remove food debris and plaque. Brush your teeth after you eat (keep a toothbrush at work or school to brush after lunch). Don't forget to brush your tongue, too. Replace your toothbrush every two to three months. Use floss or an interdental cleaner to remove food particles and plaque between your teeth once a day. Dentures should be removed at night and cleaned thoroughly before being placed in your mouth the next morning.
  • See your dentist regularly, as advised. He or she will conduct an oral examination and professional teeth cleaning and will be able to detect and treat periodontal disease, dry mouth or other problems that may be the cause of bad mouth odour.
  • Stop smoking/chewing tobacco-based products. Ask your dentist or doctor for tips on kicking the habit.
  • Drink lots of water. This will keep your mouth moist. Chewing gum (preferably sugarless) or sucking on sweets (preferably sugarless) also stimulates the production of saliva, which helps wash away food particles and bacteria.
  • Keep a diary of the foods you eat. If you think the foods that you eat may be causing your bad breath, record what you eat. Bring the diary to your dentist to review. Similarly, make a list of the medications you take. Some medications may play a role in creating mouth odours.
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