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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bad Breath

Bad breath, commonly referred to as halitosis, usually originates from one of two sources - certain foods we eat or the breakdbad breathown of food particles by bacteria which inhabit the mouth. 

The Foods We Eat - The Cause of Temporary Bad Breath

We have all probably experienced bad breath caused by eating certain foods. We eat a meal and then suffer with embarrassing bad breath later. The culprits are sulfur compounds found in certain foods like garlic and cabbage. These sulfur compounds cause breathe to smell bad.

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When we eat, sulfur compounds from foods are absorbed by our digestive systems. Contrary to popular belief, sulfur compounds do not cause bad breath as a result of working their way back up into the mouth from the stomach.

Rather, the sulfur compounds move from the digestive system into the bloodstream where they are carried to the lungs. Here the lungs expel the sulfur compounds from the body by way of the air that we exhale ! Amazingly, many of these sulfur compounds are also excreted in sweat from the skin and in urine for hours to even days after the food containing them is eaten.

How can you get rid of this type of bad breath ? One option is to avoid the foods that cause bad breath such as cabbage and onions. Alternatively, you can use one of several new products on the market which attack and neutralize the sulfur compounds while they are in the digestive system or in the bloodstream. 

Bacteria - The Cause of Chronic Bad Breath

Chronic bad breath is constant long standing bad breath. Although a little harder to treat, it can be treated nevertheless. The problem starts with bacteria. Did you know that over 170 different types of bacteria live in our mouths?

These bacteria feed on bits of food left on our teeth after meals. Feasting on these "leftovers", bacteria produce sulfur compounds (Volatile Sulfur Compounds -VSCs) which once again give breath its foul smell.

Many of these bacteria are anaerobic meaning that they can not live in the presence of oxygen. How do they live in the mouth which is exposed to oxygen every time we breathe? These bacteria hide in places where oxygen can not reach - under plaque and food debris, in the spaces between the teeth and gums, and in the deep crevices of the tongue.

This is why proper dental care is important in eliminating bad breath. Brushing and flossing:

  • Remove bacteria from the mouth.
  • Remove the layer of plaque, food debris, and dead cells which protect bacteria from oxygen.
  • Remove the left-over microscopic food particles which bacteria use to create the odorous sulfur particles.

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How Can You Tell If You Have Bad Breath?

Contrary to popular belief, you can not tell by yourself whether or not you have bad breath. Many people try cupping their hands to their nose to smell exhaled air. Others may try licking and then smelling their wrist.

Unfortunately, these simply do not work. First, the body becomes accustomed to its own odors. As a result, it becomes hard for you to objectively distinguish whether or not your breath odor is foul or not. Secondly, much of the foul breath is created at the back of the mouth and is expelled outward only when we talk.

How then do you tell if your breath offends ? Many dentists measure breath odor using an instrument called a halimeter. The patient blows into a straw like tube connected to the halimeter and the machine detects the levels of volatile sulfur compounds in the breath. The more volatile sulfur compounds measured by the machine the worst the breath.

If you do not want to use a halimeter the next best way to detect bad breath is to simply ask a trusted friend to tell you whether or not your breath is offensive.

The Tongue - Safe Haven for Bacteria

A major advancement in the treatment of bad breath has been the finding that bacteria which causes bad breath can reside on the tongue - especially the back of the tongue ! In fact, as much as 50% of the bacteria within the mouth can be found here. For bacteria the tongue is a lush velvet carpet in which they can escape the wrath of the toothbrush and dental floss.

In many countries it has long been a practice to use a device called a tongue cleaner (also commonly called a tongue scraper) to gently clean the tongue but the importance of this procedure is just being felt here in the United States.

During each brushing you should remove bacteria from your tongue with one of several commercially available tongue cleaners. What you will scrape off with the tongue cleaner is a whitish layer of bacteria, plaque, and food debris. This simple procedure can greatly improve the condition of your breath.

Saliva - Nature's Mouthwash

A very important fact to remember when battling bad breath is that saliva is our friend. A dry mouth represents the perfect environment for odor causing bacteria. Saliva acts as nature's mouthwash by keeping the mouth moist, washing away bacteria, and dissolving foul smelling volatile sulfur compounds.

Conditions which reduce saliva flow or which make our mouth dry can therefore lead to bad breath. In fact, the morning breath which many people experience after a long night of sleep is caused by the reduction in saliva flow that occurs when we sleep.

Dieting, fasting, or talking for long periods of time reduce saliva flow and contribute to bad breath. In addition, certain medications, alcohol consumption, and breathing through the nose during exercise cause dry mouth contributing to the problem.

How do you make sure your saliva flow is adequate and that your mouth stays moist ? Drink water. Saliva flow increases when we eat or drink. If you are dieting or fasting, drinking water is a good way to stimulate the flow of saliva. The water will also help wash away food and bacteria.

Placing a drop of lemon juice on the tip of your tongue or chewing sugarless gum are also effective ways to stimulate saliva flow. It is a commonly held notion in the medical community that mints and breath freshening gums work not by masking odor but by stimulating saliva flow.

The Truth About Over-The-Counter Mouthwashes

People often combat chronic bad breath using mouthwash as their weapon of choice. Ironically, most commercial mouthwashes are useless in eliminating chronic bad breath.

Recent studies have reported that mouthwashes only temporarily mask the odor of bad breath for as little as 10 minutes after brushing. In fact, because they contain alcohol, mouthwashes can actually make the situation worse by drying out the mouth creating a more hospitable environment for odor causing bacteria.

A new breed of mouthwashes containing chlorine dioxide, however, have proven very effective in combating bad breath. These mouthwashes do not mask bad breath odor like conventional mouth washes. Instead, the chlorine dioxide in these rinses directly attacks the volatile sulfur compounds responsible for bad breath.

Post-Nasal Drip

The nose can contribute to bad breath. Thick mucus discharge resulting from colds, allergies, medications, pregnancy or hormonal changes can collect on the back of the tongue. This layer of mucus provides a protective blanket under which bacteria hide. Bacteria can also break down proteins in the mucus to create volatile sulfur particles.

Sometimes mucus, bacteria, and debris condense onto the surface of the tonsils forming small hard balls of material. Known as tonsilloliths, these odorous balls of material are sometimes coughed up.

Using an over-the-counter nasal spray helps thin out post-nasal drip making it less useful to odor causing bacteria. Drinking water may also make mucus less viscous and therefore less likely to collect on the back of the tongue.

Periodontal Disease - A Treatable Cause of Bad Breath

If you try:

  • Staying away from certain foods that are known to cause bad breath,
  • Removing bacteria and food particles by brushing your teeth and flossing,
  • Removing bacteria from the tongue,
  • Making sure that your mouth does not become too dry (maintaining saliva flow),

and still have bad breath, you may want to see your dentist. This is because anaerobic bacteria in your mouth may have found special places to hide. Normally there is a small 1-3 mm space between your gums and teeth. This is known as the periodontal pocket or pocket for short. When pockets get to be 5mm or more they create deeper and more secluded hiding places for bacteria.

Your dentist should be able to detect these periodontal pockets during a routine gum exam. These areas are difficult to keep clean and may create a continuous supply of sulfur gases. The more areas that you have harboring these bacteria, the worse the breath.

What creates these widened pockets which harbor bacteria? These deep pockets often result from the breakdown of the gums caused by periodontal disease.

If you have persistent bad breath, you should definitely see your dentist to find out if you have periodontal disease. Other symptoms of periodontal disease include:

  • Swollen or bleeding gums
  • Tender gums
  • Loosening and shifting teeth
  • Sensitive teeth
  • Pain upon chewing.

If you have periodontal disease, your dentist can help you treat it and consequently treat the bad breath associated with it.