How to Banish Bad Breath

You’ve tried mints, gum and mouthwash but nothing works. Bad breath is affecting your social life, causing you to shy away from your loved ones and preventing you from speaking up at work. You’ve already spent a small fortune to cover it up, but it never stays away for very long. What really causes bad breath and how can you get rid of it?

Is it Temporary or Chronic?
Temporary bad breath can occur after eating certain foods, such as onions and cabbage, which contain high levels of sulfur compounds. When these foods are digested, the sulfur compounds are absorbed by the bloodstream, carried to the lungs and released in the form of bad breath when you exhale or speak. Changing your diet to avoid foods like these can help prevent this type of bad breath.

Chronic halitosis, or long-term bad breath, is another story.

Bacteria flourish on your tongue, especially towards the back third. These bacteria break down the leftover food in your mouth, resulting in substances called volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs). These VSCs are the most common cause of bad breath. To treat this kind of bad breath you need to reduce the amount of bacteria in your mouth.

The bacteria responsible for bad breath thrive when your mouth is dry. Conventional mouthwash, which contains alcohol, dries out your mouth and may actually cause bad breath more than it helps. Instead of an alcohol-based mouthwash, look for alcohol-free varieties or products that contain "chlorine dioxide," which attacks the VSCs at the molecular level to treat bad breath at the source instead of just covering up the smell.

One of the easiest ways to do this is by maintaining good oral hygiene—regular flossing (daily) and brushing of the teeth and tongue (at least twice per day). The tongue is a hotbed of bacterial growth, harboring millions of organisms in a bunch of tiny nooks and crannies. The most efficient way of cleaning the tongue is with a tongue scraper, a special tool made of plastic or metal that is scraped along the surface to remove the film of bacteria. The scraper should be placed as far back on the tongue as you can to remove the most bacteria as possible.

While you can brush your tongue with a regular toothbrush, a study by The Cochrane Collaboration found that tongue scrapers are more efficient at removing bacteria, removing 44 percent of VSCs (compared to the 30 percent removed by simply brushing the tongue).

Out with the Bad, In with the Good
Help the world smell a lot sweeter by applying these tips to prevent and treat bad breath:
  • Drink plenty of water. A moist mouth is inhospitable to the bacteria responsible for bad breath. Water also dilutes the concentration of VSCs, making them weaker and less pungent.
  • Brush and floss regularly. Brush and floss as soon as possible after meals to minimize the amount of bacteria in your mouth. Buy a tongue scraper (about $3) to reduce the amount of bacteria even more.
  • Treat any existing oral diseases. See your dentist regularly, especially if you suspect any type of oral disease, periodontal problem or infection.
  • Eat crunchy fruits and vegetables. Chewing apples, celery and cucumber helps keep your mouth naturally clean by removing food particles and plaque while you eat. They also increase saliva flow to keep your mouth moist.
  • Cut out coffee. Coffee leaves a film on your tongue that blocks oxygen, creating the perfect environment for bacteria growth. Switch to tea if you need a caffeine fix.
  • Chew sugarless gum. Chewing gum will help keep your mouth moist and increase saliva flow. Because the bacteria in your mouth easily break down most sugars into VSCs, choose sugarless gum and say no to mints that contain sugar.
  • Eat yogurt. Some research shows that eating one serving of yogurt daily can reduce the amount of odor-causing particles, including bacteria, in the mouth.
  • Get your vitamins. Vitamin D creates an inhospitable environment for bacteria. Enjoy plenty of vitamin D-fortified foods (such as milk and other dairy products). Vitamin C (found in berries melons and citrus fruit) also makes your mouth inhospitable to bacteria, but can also help prevent two other causes of bad breath—gum disease and gingivitis.
  • Avoid tobacco products. Any kind of tobacco (smoked or chewed) can cause bad breath and a host of oral health problems and diseases.
  • Avoid trigger foods. Onions and garlic are two well-known causes of bad breath.
  • Check your medicine cabinet. Bad breath is often a side effect of both prescription and over-the-counter medications. Take them as directed, and unless otherwise instructed, drink plenty of water along with your medication.
It can also be caused by certain oral conditions such as mouth cancer, candidiasis (thrush or fungal overgrowth) and dry mouth (xerostomia). Postnasal drip, sinus infections and gastrointestinal diseases can also cause bad breath. If your bad breath cannot be treated with proper oral hygiene, visit your health care provider to find out if you are suffering from an underlying health condition.

Although bad breath happens to the best of us, it's an embarrassing topic for many. No one enjoys being told their breath stinks, and it's equally (if not more) difficult to tell someone else that they need a mint. Once the awkwardness wears off, you can feel happy that someone you know cared enough to tell you honestly so that you can prevent and treat it. Put your best breath forward!