Practically everyone has concerns, at least occasionally, about how their breath smells. If you’ve just eaten something spicy or woken up with cotton mouth, you may be right in thinking that your breath is less than pleasant.

Even so, it’s challenging to smell your own breath and get an accurate reading on whether or not you have halitosis, the clinical name for bad breath.

Because it’s hard to tell what your own breath smells like, some people who don’t have bad breath often think they do, and others who have bad breath think they don’t. This inability to accurately assess whether or not your breath smells is sometimes referred to as the “bad breath paradox.”

In this article we’ll discuss whether or not you can measure your own bad breath, potential causes of this condition, and how to avoid it.

There’s no definitive explanation for why it’s hard to smell your own breath. This phenomenon may, however, be based upon your sensory nervous system’s ability to adjust to the ever-changing stimuli around you. This is known as sensory adaptation.

Sensory information comes in through your five senses, which are:

  1. smell
  2. hearing
  3. taste
  4. touch
  5. vision

Your sense of smell is very efficient at isolating odors that are dangerous, such as smoke, and pleasant aromas, such as your favorite food cooking. As your sense of smell adapts to incoming stimuli, your experience of aromas you’re familiar with tends to fade and become less prominent, provided they’re not dangerous. Since you smell your own breath all the time and it doesn’t pose a danger to you, you become accustomed to its scent and cease to smell it.

The inability to smell your own breath may also be due to anatomy. The mouth and nose communicate with each other through an opening in the back of the mouth. This may make it hard to accurately smell your own breath.

If you’ve ever watched a movie about awkward teenagers, you’re probably not a stranger to the old, breathe-in-your-hand-and-smell-it trick. Despite Hollywood’s take on the issue, this technique is not very accurate.

A better way to manually assess your breath is to lick the inside of your wrist and smell it. The scent of breath on skin will be easier for your nose to pick up. Even so, this technique is not completely surefire.

You can try a few other methods to determine if your breath smells.

At home

Ask someone you trust to let you know if your breath smells good or bad.

Using a tongue scraper may also be beneficial, for both assessing and eliminating bad breath. Scrape the back of your tongue, as this is often the source of bad breath, and smell the scraper. If it smells bad, incorporate brushing your tongue with a toothbrush or using a scraper daily into your oral hygiene routine.

At the dentist

You can also ask your dentist for a bad breath test. There are several types:

Halimeter test

This test measures volatile sulfur compound (VSC) level. VSCs are caused by an overgrowth of bacteria, either in the bowel or mouth.

Halimeter tests measure parts per billion of VSCs. Usually measurements that range above 100 parts per billion typically indicate smelly breath.

Halimeter tests are also available for purchase and use by consumers. Some of these are more reliable than others. Before you buy, ask your dentist which one they recommend.

Organoleptic method

This method relies on a dentist’s personal assessment of the way your breath smells through a plastic straw. Often, the dentist will compare exhalations from the nose to those of the mouth in order to make a determination.

In some instances, these tests may contradict each other. Ask your dentist which type of test may be best for you.

You may want to look to your lifestyle to determine if you are at risk for bad breath.

Poor oral hygiene

Poor oral hygiene is one of the most common causes of bad breath.

If you don’t brush and floss regularly, decaying food particles and bacteria may remain trapped between teeth, causing odor and plaque. When plaque on teeth is left and not cleaned away daily it can turn into hard tartar or calculus. Tartar collects more bacteria and can cause pockets to form in your gums around your teeth. These pockets trap food and bacteria, causing bad breath to worsen. Once tartar hardens on your teeth, it can only be removed with a professional dental cleaning.


What you eat and drink also matters. Certain foods, such as garlic and onions, are notorious for causing bad breath because they contain sulfur-producing compounds. When you eat strongly-flavored or heavily-spiced foods, their smells can linger in the mouth. Their oils are also transmitted from the stomach to the blood stream, and eventually to the lungs, where it can affect the smell of your breath for several days.

Other bad breath offenders include alcoholic drinks, coffee, and cigarettes.

Dry mouth

Dry mouth can be a cause of bad breath. Saliva helps to clean the mouth. If you don’t produce enough saliva, odor-forming foods and bacteria may remain in your mouth, causing bad breath. Medical conditions that have dry mouth as a symptom, such as diabetes, may be a factor.

Health conditions

Some medical conditions are potential causes of bad breath, such as:

  • sinus infections
  • lung infections
  • liver failure
  • GERD

In some instances, illness or disease may cause your breath to take on a feces-like odor.

  • Brushing and flossing your teeth after each meal is one of the easiest ways to eliminate many cases of bad breath.
  • In a pinch and can’t brush? Reaching for sugar-free spearmint gum is a good, temporary substitute.
  • If your tongue looks coated, using a tongue scraper can help reduce halitosis.
  • If you have plaque or tartar buildup on your teeth, a thorough cleaning at the dentist’s office will help. Keeping up with dental cleanings at least twice annually will help keep bad breath at bay.
  • If dry mouth is an issue, use a mouthwash designed to rectify this condition. You can also try sucking on ice cubes, sugarless gum, or sugarless hard candies. There are also over-the-counter saliva substitutes which can help eliminate dry mouth.
  • Smoking cigarettes make your mouth smell and taste bad. Stopping smoking is your best option, but if you’re not ready to take that step, try brushing your teeth or using breath mints immediately after you smoke.
  • Try serving fresh parsley on your plate. Chewing on parsley can help freshen breath and eliminate odors caused by food.

Bad breath is a common issue that is hard to accurately self-diagnose. You may be able to tell if you have bad breath by cupping your hands over your mouth and nose or licking the inside of your wrist, and smelling it.

Bad breath is often caused by poor oral hygiene. Brushing and flossing regularly can go a long way towards remedying this condition. What you eat and drink also plays a role. In some instances, an underlying medical condition may be at fault.