Bad Breath (Halitosis)

Written by Rose Kivi and Marijane Leonard | Published on August 16, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Bad Breath?

Bad breath, also called halitosis or oral malodor, is when an unpleasant odor emanates from the mouth.

What Causes Bad Breath?

Many things can cause bad breath. Sometimes it’s the result of the foods you eat. And sometimes it can be caused by something more serious, such as a disease.

Mouth Conditions

Most cases of bad breath are caused by conditions in the mouth. Bad odor from the mouth can be caused by:

  • poor oral hygiene. This is the most common cause of bad breath.
  • dental problems such as gum disease, cavities, and abscessed teeth
  • dentures
  • certain foods and drinks such as garlic, onions, and coffee
  • tobacco products
  • alcohol
  • dry mouth
  • sinus conditions
  • throat infections
  • lung infections
  • certain medications such as insulin injections, Paraldehyde, and Triamterene
  • vitamin supplements
  • a foreign body in the nose (usually in children)

Disease

Some of the diseases that can cause bad breath include:

  • diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when you do not have enough insulin to process the sugars in your body
  • some cancers
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • liver disease
  • kidney disease
  • ozena, a disease that causes the bony ridges and mucous membranes of the nose to deteriorate
  • Zenker’s diverticulum, a rare disease where a pouch forms at the back of the throat

Some types of unpleasant breath odors may indicate certain health conditions.

Fruity Breath Odor

A fruity breath odor may indicate ketoacidosis. This is a serious condition. Call your doctor immediately if your breath is persistently fruity.

Feces Breath Odor

Breath that smells like feces can be caused by prolonged vomiting, especially if you have a bowel obstruction (a blockage in the bowels). It can also be caused by a nasogastric tube (a tube inserted through the nose or mouth and into the stomach to empty the contents of the stomach).

Ammonia Breath Odor

Breath that smells like ammonia or urine or has a fish smell can be a sign of kidney failure.

Who Is at Risk for Bad Breath?

Certain factors can increase your risk of having bad breath, including:

  • having poor oral hygiene
  • smoking or chewing tobacco
  • drinking alcohol
  • eating pungent foods such as garlic and onions

What are the Symptoms of Bad Breath?

The symptom of bad breath is an unpleasant or foul odor coming from your mouth. It can be difficult to assess the smell of your own breath. You may need to ask a friend, family member, or medical professional to tell you if your breath smells bad.

How Is Bad Breath Diagnosed?

A physician will usually diagnose bad breath by smelling your breath. Your healthcare provider may perform exams or tests to diagnose the cause of your bad breath. Common exams and tests include:

  • dental exam to detect gum disease or tooth decay
  • physical examination of your mouth and nose to check for abnormalities
  • throat culture to detect bacteria

The following tests may be done in rare cases:

How Is Bad Breath Treated?

The treatment for bad breath depends on the cause of the unpleasant odor. Treatments include:

Home Treatment

Many cases of bad breath can be treated at home. Home treatment consists of:

  • practicing good hygiene by brushing your teeth and cleaning your tongue at least twice a day and flossing your teeth at least once a day
  • avoiding tobacco products
  • avoding foods that have pungent odors, such as garlic, onions, and coffee
  • not drinking alcohol
  • eat parsley and mint to temporarily mask bad breath

Dental Treatment

Your dentist will treat any dental infections you have such as cavities, abscesses, and gum disease, as well as clean your teeth to remove plaque buildup. Your dentist may also recommend a prescription antibacterial toothpaste and mouthwash to reduce odor-causing bacteria in your mouth.

Medical Treatment

Your doctor will treat any underlying medical conditions that are causing your bad breath.

Prognosis

Many cases of bad breath are temporary and go away with home treatment. The prognosis for bad breath that is caused by underlying medical conditions varies according to the disorder or disease.

Prevention

There are certain things you can do to reduce your risk of getting bad breath. These include:

  • practicing good oral hygiene
  • visiting your dentist regularly
  • avoiding tobacco products
  • minimizing alcohol consumption
  • avoiding foods and beverages that cause bad breath
  • drinking plenty of water
  • eating plenty of fiber to avoid constipation
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Article Sources:

  • Bad Breath (Halitosis) - American Dental Association - ADA.org. (n.d.). Home - American Dental Association - ADA.org. Retrieved April 9, 2012, from http://www.ada.org/2941.aspx

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