Cause #1: Poor Oral Hygiene
I can’t stress this one enough. Food and bacteria on your teeth is the #1 cause of bad breath. This needs to be cleaned off regularly to avoid that terrible smell. When bacteria start feeding on food in your mouth they produce sulfur compounds as a byproduct. These sulfur compounds literally can make your breath smell like a sewer. Brushing only hits 3 out of the 5 surfaces on your teeth. Flossing cleans the other two. If you brush but don’t floss, you’re leaving 40% of the food and debris in there!
Don’t forget about your tongue. You may think your tongue is smooth but in reality is covered in tiny taste buds that have a huge amount of surface area. Food easily gets stuck in all these little crevices. Scrubbing your tongue with a toothbrush will definitely help. If you want to take it to the next level, invest in a tongue scraper. Studies have shown that a tongue scraper works better than a toothbrush for cleaning your tongue and reducing those sulfur compounds from bacteria.
After brushing, flossing, and scraping your tongue, use mouthwash. Most mouthwashes are antibacterial and will knock down the levels of bad smelling bacteria. Check out our recommendations for different types of mouthwash.
Lastly, if you’ve got untreated gum / periodontal disease, get it taken care of at the dentist. This isn’t something you can fix yourself. With gum disease you get significant tartar build-up on your teeth under the gumline. This build-up acts as a hiding spot for all those bacteria and you’ll never get your breath fresh until they’re gone.
Cause #2: Smoking
As long as you smoke you’re going to struggle to maintain any semblance of good breath. I’ve never met a smoker who I didn’t notice their breath within the first 10 seconds. Maybe being a dentist I notice these things more than other people, but still you don’t want to be up close to someone with that kind of breath. Smoking causes several issues that lead to bad breath. First, smoking makes your breath smell strongly like smoke. Mouthwash may hide some of the smell but won’t make it go away entirely. Secondly, smoking hurts your mouth’s ability to fight bacteria. The heat and chemicals in a cigarette deactivate a lot of the mechanisms that your mouth uses to keep itself in balance. Third, smoking is a huge risk factor for periodontal disease (see cause #1).
If you can’t stop smoking right away, start trying to cut down over time. The less you smoke, the better your breath will get.
Cause #3: Foods and Drinks
This is a pretty easy one. Don’t eat foods that give you bad breath! The big offenders include garlic, onions, coffee, alcohol, and fish. Is there anything you can do to make the smell go away if you’ve already eaten or drunk these things? Not really… the bad smelling compounds, which are usually oils, tend to continue to come out of your mouth and skin until they are gone. Ever eaten a lot of garlic and then felt like your entire body smelled like garlic? I have! It actually starts coming out of the pores in your skin. Mouthwash can mask the smells for a very short period of time but they tend to come back pretty quickly. The best thing to do is get a stash of sugar free gum or mints and chew / suck on them until the bad smell goes away.
Cause #4: Dry Mouth
Many medications, including caffeine, anti-depressants, antihistamines, decongestants, narcotic pain medications, asthma treatments, and high blood pressure medications can all cause some pretty significant dry mouth. Look at the side effect list of just about any medication and most likely dry mouth will be one of them.
Other medical conditions and lifestyle choices that can cause dry mouth include Sjogren’s syndrome, smoking, chemotherapy, radiation treatments, and dehydration.
In addition to raising your risk of cavities, dry mouth also promotes bad breath as there isn’t enough saliva to clean your mouth. Try avoiding caffeine, discussing your medications with your physician, drinking enough water throughout the day, and chewing sugarless gum. Some mouthrinses, such as Biotene, are made specifically for people with dry mouth and work well to help reduce some of the problems associated with it.
Cause #5: Mouth Breathing
Mouth breathing, as it’s name strongly implies, is when a person breathes primarily through their mouth instead of through their nose. Mouth breathing causes the mouth to become extremely dry leading to all the same symptoms as dry mouth as well as severely inflamed gums around your front teeth. Both of these can cause bad breath.
Mouth breathing is usually the result of an unconscious habit that has been formed over the years. Occasionally, it is the result of physical obstructions in the nasal passage that make breathing through the nose difficult or impossible. In cases of physical obstruction surgery is often required with an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. For everyone else, it is a habit that can be changed with some effort. The best way to stop mouth breathing is through the Buteyko method. I’ve attached a link below to the best book on the subject that I have read. It takes you through a series of exercises that will teach you to breathe normally again. Once the mouth breathing habit stops, you will likely see significant improvement in bad breath.