Bad Breath (Halitosis) – Causes, Treatment and Prevention

Halitosis can be an embarrassing problem and can affect a person’s self confidence and social interactions. The most effective way to treat bad breath is to identify the cause and receive the appropriate medical treatment. Preventing bad breath is an ongoing endeavour that we all undertake on a daily basis. In the case of halitosis, even the best dental hygiene is insufficient to avoid bad breath.

Halitosis is the medical term for persistent bad breath that may vary in severity and the type of odor. It can range from a stale to sickening, fruity odour and in more severe cases, it may smell fishy or extremely foul similar to rotting matter. At times, the type of smell can provide some indication as to the cause of the bad breath.

Causes of Bad Breath

The most common causes of halitosis are related to the type of foods you eat and dental hygiene and health. Certain foods like garlic, onions, fish and seafood or other strong smelling foods may cause temporary bad breath. This is not halitosis as such and will often resolve after a few hours or after brushing and flossing. Dental health is another common cause of persistent bad breath. Rotting teeth (cavities) and abscesses may result in a very offensive odor depending on the extent of the problem. Poor dental hygiene is a major contributing factor to dental health and even if there are no cavities, poor hygiene will inevitably lead to halitosis.

Specks of food are trapped between the teeth and corners of the mouth during eating. Bacteria in the mouth quickly consume these food particles and in the process release various gases that contribute to the odor. This bacterial decomposition causes an odour similar to any decaying matter, often resembling garbage. Apart from the crevices between the teeth, the bumps on the tongue (papillae) also traps specks of food which will be quickly consumed by bacteria in the mouth.

Saliva plays an important role in maintaining the pH (acid-base balance) within in the mouth. It also has natural antimicrobial effects preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi within the mouth. Any cause of mouth dryness will allow the bacteria in the mouth to multiply and increase the consumption of food particles within the mouth. Saliva production is significantly reduced while you sleep which is the reason why the morning breath has a bad odour. Teeth that are compromised provide an ideal environment for food to get trapped and for bacteria to thrive with good dental hygiene only offering limited assistance in ridding the mouth of bacteria.

Other causes of chronic bad breath include :

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Tonsillitis and other causes of persistent sore throat
  • Sinusitis, postnasal drip and other causes of nasal congestion
  • Infections in the nose, mouth, throat, upper gastrointestinal tract and lower air passages. A lung abscess may cause a very offensive bad breath.
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes
  • Opportunistic infections of the mouth which is common in HIV/AIDS.
  • Mouth breathing as is the case with nasal congestion.

Treatment of Halitosis

The treatment depends on the cause of the persistent bad breath. Dental cavities will need to be treated by a dentist. The decayed tooth may have to be removed or a filling may be sufficient to remove the affected portion. In cases of a dry mouth, the cause has to be treated in order to reduce the bad breath. Simply drinking water will not be sufficient as saliva is needed due to its antibacterial properties. Sugar free gum and certain medication will increase saliva production.

The best way to start treating halitosis is to ensure that your dental hygiene is adequate. This should involve brushing your teeth twice a day, flossing and using a mouth wash. If you have been suffering with bad breath for a while, it is also advisable to floss and use a mouth wash after every meal. Do not brush too many times in a day as this can erode the enamel of your teeth which will promote the formation of cavities.

Preventing Bad Breath

  • See your dentist at least twice a year for a full dental check up.
  • Do not delay undergoing any necessary dental procedures. If you have a bridge or implant, speak to your dentist about additional hygiene measures.
  • Any person using dentures (‘false teeth’) should be aware of the proper cleaning and storage methods.
  • Good dental hygiene is important in preventing bad breath. Apart from brushing your teeth twice a day, you should also brush your tongue as this is another area where bacteria can thrive.
  • Flossing and the use of a mouth wash should not be seen as additional measures. These are important methods for preventing bad breath and maintaining the health of your teeth and gum.
  • Chewing gum may be helpful in increasing saliva production and reducing bacterial growth. Avoid gum with sugar or any other artificial sweetener.
  • Stay away from acidic foods and drinks as these erode the enamel of your teeth and lead to cavities.
  • Never skip a day of brushing – plaque builds up almost immediately and tartar sets in afterwards which can be difficult to remove with brushing alone.