According to a survey commissioned by the British Dental Association, one in five people say that oral odour is the most unattractive feature a person can have. But it's more than just a social no-no; bad breath is your body's way of saying all is not well.
What causes bad breath?
Even the most dedicated practitioners of oral hygiene will wake up with morning breath but it’s not something you should worry about. “During the day, movement of the tongue and cheeks ‘cleans’ away food debris and dead cells and these are washed away by saliva,” says London dentist Dr Jonathan Hall. “While we sleep there is not much movement and the flow of saliva is reduced.” This allows in any suppertime leftovers to stagnate in your mouth, providing oral bacteria with a tasty meal. Unfortunately, the bacteria’s midnight feasting leaves your mouth smelling just as your dining room would the morning after a dinner party – stale and unpleasant.
Getting rid of morning breath
Fortunately, morning breath usually disappears after breakfast, cleaning the teeth or rinsing your mouth with water,” says Hall. And you can help reduce morning breath by drinking plenty of water to ensure you don’t get dehydrated at night, which will exacerbate the problem; avoid overheating your bedroom, as the warmth will make your mouth even drier; and, if you’re a snorer, beware – your breath is likely to be worse as you breathe through your mouth rather than your nose.
Gum disease can cause halitosis
If you think your oral odour is more than morning breath, you need to get help. Ask a good friend or family member to smell your breath and tell you if it’s a serious problem. “Although many people suffer with occasional bad breath, genuine halitosis is quite noticeable,” says dentist Jonathan Portner, spokesperson for the British Dental Association. “It is most commonly caused by gum disease, which is easily remedied with a medicated mouthwash. But a leaking crown or filling can also produce a putrid odour.”
A breeding ground for bacteria
Your teeth and gums aren’t the only places that harbour appetising particles that bacteria like to feast on: “Bad breath is often caused by a proliferation of odour-producing bacteria towards the back of the tongue,” says Hall. “Food particles, postnasal drip [mucus secretions from your nose and throat] and stagnant saliva build up in papillae at the back of the tongue, providing a breeding ground for bacteria and these produce bad smells.”
And if that hasn’t put you off delving any deeper into the issue, you could try this simple self breath-test: Take a spoon, turn it upside down and scrape across the back of your tongue. Take care not to put the spoon too far back or it’ll make you gag. Now smell what’s collected on the spoon. Beware – this may make you gag too!
How to stop bad breath
You can use your toothbrush to gently brush your tongue, or try a stiff tongue scraper such as those from Halita, or a soft brush with a tongue paste such as Dr Wieder’s Tung Brush/Gel with zinc,” says Hall. Halita tongue scrapers can be bought from www.gents.co.uk; and the Tung Brush and Gel is available at www.smilewithstyle.co.uk.
If that doesn't work see your dentist, who’ll be able to check if the odour is caused by tooth decay. Perhaps more important, he or she can also check your gums: “Gum disease is the most widespread cause of persistent bad breath,” says Dr Hall. “Many people are unaware of having gum disease, which is caused by an inflammation as a result of bacterial plaque at or below the gumline, typically in a hard deposit of scale on the tooth surface.”
Hall suggests being aware of the signs of gum disease: “Bleeding when brushing, redness, and swelling of the gums,” he says. “The gums will change colour from red to white when pushed with a finger.”
Have routine dental check-ups
Having regular dental check-ups should ensure that any signs of gum disease are recognised and dealt with, and seeing a hygienist for a clean will help prevent further problems.
Try these tips to prevent tooth decay, plaque build-up and gum disease:
Chew gum It’s not just all clever advertising, chewing gum really does help prevent tooth decay... if it’s sugar-free. “Chewing gum stimulates saliva production and that helps flush bacteria and food remains away,” says dentist Khoi D Nghiem.
Chomp on vegetables If chewing gum is something you feel is best left to teenagers and Americans, try raw vegetables instead. Chewing on fibrous vegetables such as carrots or celery helps encourage saliva production too.
Drink more water Drinking water also helps as it flushes out bacteria and keeps the mouth moist.
Avoid certain mouth washes “Many mouth washes contain alcohol, which dries out your mouth and can damage the delicate tissue inside your mouth, leading to an even more bacteria-friendly environment,” says Portner. “The best mouthwash for solving bad breath problems is RetarDex – it doesn’t contain fluoride, though, you do need to use a fluoride toothpaste along with it.” RetarDex is quite pricey at £7.99 for 500ml, so for a cheaper alcohol-free option, go for Dental pH (£2.19 from Boots).
Steer clear of dairy products The bacteria in your mouth find the proteins in milk and cheese most delicious.
Quit the coffee It’s not just about dehydration, coffee is acidic and this upsets the balance in your mouth, allowing bacteria to multiply.
What else could cause bad breath?
If you’ve seen your dentist, and tried tongue scraping, flossing and brushing more regularly, the odour may be a symptom of something more serious. “Certain types of bad breath can be an indication of disease elsewhere in the body,” says Nghiem.
If your breath smells...
Sweet: If you smell as though you've just chomped your way through an entire fruit cake, you could have diabetes.
Acrid, like ammonia: If, when you laugh loud and heartily, people involuntarily turn their faces away, you may have kidney disease - the ammonia-like smell is extremely unpleasant. But before you rush off to find a suitable kidney donor, consider whether you have any of the other symptoms of kidney disease: changes in urination - different colour, need to go more often; swelling in your legs or arms; a metallic taste in your mouth; fatigue; nausea; and dizziness. See your GP if you think you are suffering with several of these symptoms.
Rotten eggs: Remember stink bombs? Well, if that’s what your breath smells like, you should see your GP. This bad breath smell indicates liver damage and as cirrhosis of the liver often shows no other symptoms in the early stages, it’s worth getting it checked out, particularly if you drink a lot of alcohol.