Halitosis: How to avoid the curse of bad breath

There are many reasons for stinky breath, but there are also many solutions, including improving oral hygiene, using mouthwash and chewing parsley.

Robin Roberts 6 minute read April 25, 2022
woman checking her bad breath

Halitosis, or bad breath, is unavoidable — if we want to eat, sleep and, well, live.

Morning breath. Garlic breath. Coffee breath. We’ve all been there. And, ever since we’ve been wearing masks, we may have been sparing our friends — but to ourselves, that pungent stench becomes very evident, very fast.

Halitosis, or bad breath, is unavoidable — if we want to eat, sleep and, well, live.

Waking up to a foul taste and odour in our mouth is simply due to dryness caused by the decrease in saliva that happens when we sleep (and snore, and breathe through our mouths). And a parched kisser is a breeding ground for bacteria, which adds to the stench.

Some medications can also dry out our mouths, so it’s a good idea to keep hydrated by drinking water throughout the day.

Most common cause of bad breath is food

But the most common cause of bad breath is the food particles that get trapped in our teeth, break down and, if not removed, increase bacteria. Also, when certain foods are digested, such as onions and garlic, they release sulphur compounds into our blood stream that come back to haunt us through our breath.

Usually a two-minute brush, floss and gargle will save the day (and your date). Leave food trapped too long, and it will require a bit more elbow grease.

“Our mouths are the primary portal of our body,” says Dr. Natalie Archer, DDS, B.Sc., owner of Archer Dental, which has three offices in the Greater Toronto Area. “Everything we eat or drink goes through our mouth, and if we haven’t done a good job cleaning it, or if there are broken teeth or older fillings [you’ll have bad breath].”

She adds that if you were to ask your dentist to show you the debris they extract from your teeth, you’ll be able to smell it — and it’s not pleasant. “More than 90 per cent of the time, professional hygiene can remove that stuff,” Archer says. “For long-standing, fermented food [that’s caused] a buildup of bacteria or plaque that has hardened, called calculus or tartar, we use professional tools to remove it.”

What other reason does my breath stink?

Colds or antibiotics, which can change our bacteria, or flora, says Archer, can also cause bad breath. Foul breath may also be an indicator of other, more serious, conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux, throat or respiratory infections, bronchitis, sinus issues, metabolic disorders, diabetes, kidney disease, even cancer.

“[Dentists] pick up on a lot of systemic things because the mouth is so connected to the rest of the body,” says Archer. “And [we are] one of the health professions that patients tend to see once or more a year — they often don’t go to see their doctor for a checkup. The ones who come to the dentist regularly tend to be the healthiest patients, and don’t have chronic issues.”

If, however, your dragon breath is simply the result of poor hygiene, your dentist will ask you some lifestyle questions to get at the root of the problem. This could be followed by an overall oral exam, and a possible deep cleaning and scaling to remove plaque, a sticky bacterial film that coats your teeth.

It untreated, plaque can form pockets between your teeth and gums, resulting in periodontitis, also known as gum disease. In that case, you may be referred to a specialist — a periodontist — who may use a dental probe around your gum line to measure pocket depth. In a healthy mouth, that would be between one and three millimetres: anything deeper than four millimetres could indicate periodontitis, and deeper than five will be more difficult to clean and may require dental surgery.

You may need surgery

One option might be flap surgery, where the periodontist makes small cuts into your gum so that a section can be lifted back to help with scaling and planing. If you have any bone loss, it may need to be re-contoured before the gum is stitched back together.

Sometimes, your dentist may recommend a soft tissue graft — or reinforcement — for a receding gum line. This requires removing a small bit of tissue from the roof of your mouth, or from a donor, and attaching it to the recession. If the periodontitis has eroded the bone around the root, you may need a bone graft, which uses small fragments of your own bone, or a synthetic, to hold your tooth in place.

Guided tissue regeneration, where your dentist will put a piece of biocompatible fabric between the existing bone and your tooth, is another option to treat gum disease, which allows the bone to grow back. Tissue-stimulating proteins, which is a special gel applied to diseased tooth root, can also be used to stimulate the growth of healthy bone and tissue.

Protecting your teeth and avoiding bad breath

To keep your pearly whites perfect, you know the drill: brush twice a day, including your tongue, using a soft toothbrush that you replace every three to six months. Many dentists recommend an electric toothbrush, which can be better at removing plaque and tartar. And floss thoroughly every day, or use an interdental cleaner, such as a dental pick, which are designed to clean better between your teeth.

As for keeping your breath fresh, Archer approves of sugarless gum, which increases saliva production, but only if used briefly. “The ideal is five to 10 minutes max,” she says. “It’s not meant for half an hour or more. It loses its elasticity, its taste, the texture changes, and it’s hard on your joints.”

If your dentist recommends it, use a special antimicrobial mouth rinse to help with plaque between your teeth. Archer says she’s not a big fan of mouth washes in general because they tend to dry the mouth. But she does use an oral rinse called Peridex for some patients after gum surgery or for healing mouth lesions, but not long-term as the rinse can stain teeth.

If you want to go au naturel, skip the commercial mouthwashes, mints and gum and chew on some fresh mint or parsley, which has a high chlorophyll content. Fennel and anise seeds, which contain aromatic oils, are popular in India. Certain fruits, such as oranges, pineapples and apples, can also freshen breath, as can yogurt (for its good bacteria compounds) and green tea (for its antibacterial properties).

Practice good oral hygiene, minimize those stinky foods, make regular visits to your dentist, and what comes out of your mouth will be like a breath of fresh air.

Robin Roberts is a Vancouver-based writer.