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Breath odor affects everyone at some point. Bad breath is also known as halitosis or fetor oris. Odor can come from the mouth, teeth, or as a result of an underlying health problem. Bad breath odor can be a temporary problem or a chronic condition. According to the American Dental Association, at least 50 percent of adults have had halitosis in their lifetime.
In addition to a bad smell in your mouth, you may also notice a bad taste in your mouth. If the taste is due to an underlying condition and isn’t because of trapped food particles, it may not disappear even if you brush your teeth and use mouthwash.
Bacteria breaks down food particles trapped in the teeth or mouth. The combination of the bacteria and decaying food in your mouth produces an unpleasant odor. Brushing and flossing regularly removes trapped food before it decays.
Brushing also removes plaque, a sticky substance that builds up on your teeth and causes odor. Plaque buildup can cause cavities and periodontal disease. Bad breath also can be a problem if you wear dentures and don’t clean them every night.
When you eat onions, garlic, or other foods with strong odors, your stomach absorbs oils from the foods during digestion. These oils pass into your bloodstream and travel to your lungs. This produces an odor that others can notice in your breath for up to 72 hours. Drinking beverages with strong odors, such as coffee, can also contribute to bad breath.
Smoking cigarettes or cigars causes a bad odor and dries out your mouth, which can make your breath odor even worse.
Dry mouth can also occur if you don’t create enough saliva. Saliva helps keep your mouth clean and reduces odor. Dry mouth can be a problem if you have a salivary gland condition, sleep with your mouth open, or take certain medications, including those that treat high blood pressure and urinary conditions.
Periodontal disease happens when you don’t remove plaque promptly from teeth. Over time, plaque hardens into tartar. You can’t remove tartar by brushing, and it can irritate your gums. Tartar may cause pockets, or small openings, to form in the area between the teeth and gums. Food, bacteria, and dental plaque can collect in the pockets, causing a strong odor.
Bad breath odor may develop if you have:
Tonsil stones also can be a source of bad breath because bacteria tend to collect on the stones.
Unusual breath odor can be a symptom of some diseases, including kidney disease, diabetes, and gastroesophageal reflex disorder (GERD). GERD is a relatively common cause of halitosis. If you have kidney or liver failure or diabetes, your breath may smell fishy. When your diabetes isn’t under control, your breath may smell fruity.
Your dentist will smell your breath and ask you questions about your problem. They may recommend you schedule an appointment for the morning, before you brush your teeth. You can expect to answer questions regarding how often you brush and floss, the kinds of food you eat, and any allergies or diseases you may have. Tell your doctor how often you snore, what medications you take, and when the problem started.
Your doctor will smell your mouth, nose, and tongue to diagnose your problem. They’ll try to determine the source of the odor. If the odor doesn’t seem to be coming from your teeth or mouth, your dentist will recommend that you visit your family doctor to rule out an underlying disease or condition.
If breath odor is due to a plaque buildup, a dental cleaning may solve the problem. A deep dental cleaning may be necessary if you have periodontal disease. Treating underlying medical problems, such as a sinus infection or kidney disease, can also help improve breath odor. Your dentist may recommend that you use an artificial saliva product and drink plenty of water if dry mouth causes your odor problem.
You should brush your teeth two or more times each day. Floss daily, making sure to get in between all of your teeth. Use antimicrobial mouthwash daily to kill bacteria. Brushing your tongue with a toothbrush or tongue scraper can also help remove bacteria.
Staying hydrated can often help to eliminate or prevent breath odor. Drink water to wash away food particles and keep your mouth moist. Quitting smoking if you smoke can also help keep your mouth moist and free of odor.
There are several routines that can prevent breath odor. Clean your dentures, mouth guards, and retainers daily. Replace your old toothbrush with a new one every three months, and schedule a dental cleaning and examination every six months.
Written by: Holly McGurgan
Medically reviewed on: May 03, 2016: Steve Kim, MD
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