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What to Do About Bad Breath

Updated on October 23, 2015

Perhaps your friends and associates continually offer you mints or chewing gum. Or they tend to speak with you from a distance. You may just have nice friends who like to give you things and maintain a respectable distance. You could be wound tightly and verging on violence. Or you might have bad breath.

“Having bad breath doesn't have to be an unsurmountable problem,” advises the charmingly named You can breathe a sigh of relief, but not in my direction, thank you.

Bad breath is known in medical circles as halitosis. This term is derived from the Latin “halitus” and the Greek suffix “osis”, which combine to mean “breath condition”. This is like calling a six-car accident a “traffic condition”, and frankly, combining Latin and Greek is a bit of a linguistic train wreck, if I might continue the transportation analogy.

Invisible implements of destruction could be unleashed at any moment.
Invisible implements of destruction could be unleashed at any moment. | Source

Testing Your Breath

Like a social misfit, a person with halitosis is often unaware of his condition. This is because one's nose tends to mask background smells, which in this case might resemble the breath of a rhinoceros, for example. The bearer of foul breath wilts those around him while often unaware of his affliction. Make no mistake: someone's oral emanations can bring you to your knees, and while you're down there, I hope you don't face the rear of someone dealing with a bout of another dreaded condition: flatulence. Strike two!

You can test your own breath if you have the courage. Lick your wrist, wait a few seconds for the saliva to dry, and then smell it. I suggest you do this while alone. You don't need your friends seeing you lick your wrist and smell it. You have enough social problems already. This procedure tests the “anterior” of your tongue, which is the tip.

Next, turn a spoon upside down and scrape the back part of your tongue. This is the posterior. (I know what you're thinking, but this is a different posterior, and trust me, you don't want to be testing the smell of that posterior.) You might gag, which is what you do to everyone else, so what the hell. Smell the thick, whitish material you've scraped off your tongue. (This is really getting disgusting.) This is likely the way your breath smells to others.

Causes of Halitosis

Halitosis is usually caused by oral bacteria, and these critters most often take up residence in the white junk on your tongue's posterior—there's that word again. It can also be caused by foods such as garlic and onions, in which case it should vanish in a day or two, assuming you don't eat more garlic and onions. All the junk you inhale when smoking can cause smoker's breath, which can clearly be eliminated by stopping smoking, which wouldn't be a bad idea in any case.

Periodontal disease and sinus conditions can also cause halitosis. The former can result in bone damage, which creates pockets in the gums where bacteria can grow. The latter can result in drainage onto the back of the tongue, which provides food for bacteria. Dental plaque can also create an environment for the anaerobic bacteria that cause bad breath. Hungry bacteria chow down on all this stuff and discharge stinky waste products.

Mr. Happy Tooth and one of his weapons.
Mr. Happy Tooth and one of his weapons. | Source

Bacteria can also grow on dentures. You can test for this by sealing your dentures in a plastic bag for a few minutes and then opening the bag and smelling what's inside. (Tell me again why I decided to write about this topic.)

Oral bacteria excrete what dentists call “volatile sulfur compounds”, or VSCs. We all know how sulfurous compounds tend to smell rotten. details four of the prime culprits.

Cadaverine is the smell associated with corpses. I'm not too familiar with this odor, and would like to keep it that way. Putrescine smells of decaying meat. Skatole has the smell of fecal matter. (I hope you weren't planning to have dinner soon after reading this story.) Isovaleric acid smells of sweaty feet, sort of like eau de gym shoe .

Curing Bad Breath

To cure bad breath you need to starve oral bacteria and eliminate the environments in which they like to live.

Bacteria prefer proteins, so eating more fruits and vegetables give them less to eat. Clean your mouth after eating to minimize the amount of food available to bacteria. Brush and floss regularly to eliminate bacteria-friendly environments. Brushing alone won't cut it. You'll have to break out the floss if you're serious. Your dentist can teach you proper brushing and flossing techniques, knowledge that has continually eluded me throughout my life, and can thoroughly clean your teeth to remove tartar, which can interfere with brushing and flossing.

Mouthwash can help if used along with tongue cleaning, brushing and flossing. It won't do the job by itself. Antibacterial mouthwashes will help kill the bacteria that are fouling your breath. You can also buy mouthwashes that help to neutralize volatile sulfur compounds. Brush and floss before using mouthwash, because these activities help to disrupt and expose bacteria. Gargling maximizes exposure of the tongue's posterior to the mouthwash.

Breath mints, lozenges, sprays, gum and drops can help, but aren't effective on their own. In addition to any active agents they may contain, they stimulate saliva production, which helps to cleanse the mouth and dilute bacteria.

Perhaps the best way to fight halitosis is to clean your tongue, particularly the posterior. Somehow we can't get past this posterior talk, and coincidentally, all this cleaning and brushing is a real pain in the butt—figuratively, that is. Remember all that white gunk at the back of your tongue? Clean your tongue as far back as you can, again realizing that this might trigger the gag reflex. Apply light pressure and stroke outward and forward. A toothpaste that contains substances such as chlorine dioxide or zinc will help fight bacteria. Toothpaste with antibacterial agents is even better. You can try a tongue scraper if you find that easier. It also might cause less gagging.

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