Bad breath (halitosis)

Bad breath is a common problem that can affect anyone at any age. About one in four people are thought to have bad breath (halitosis) on a regular basis. Improving your oral hygiene is usually enough to cure bad breath and stop it happening again, (see ‘preventing bad breath’ below).

Causes of bad breath

There are a number of things that can cause bad breath. It's usually the result of poor oral hygiene. If bacteria build up in your mouth, the toxins produced can cause your breath to smell.

Bacteria break down pieces of food in the mouth, and may release an unpleasant-smelling gas. Any food trapped on your teeth – particularly between them – is broken down by bacteria. This may cause bad breath.

Persistent bad breath can sometimes be a sign of gum disease. Eating strongly flavoured foods, such as onions and garlic, can also cause your breath to smell.   Smoking and drinking alcohol can also cause your breath to smell.

Occasionally, bad breath can occur after an infection or illness, or as a result of taking certain types of medication.

Treating and preventing bad breath

Improving your oral hygiene is usually enough to cure bad breath and stop it happening again.

To improve your oral health, make sure you:

  • floss between your teeth daily
  • brush your teeth and gums regularly
  • clean your tongue regularly

You should visit your dentist for regular check-ups. Having regular dental check-ups will make sure any plaque and calculus – previously known as tartar – is removed from your teeth, particularly in areas that are difficult to reach.

Your dentist can recommend the best way to clean your teeth and gums, and point out areas you might be missing. They can also identify any signs of gum disease and make sure early treatment.

When to seek medical advice

See your dentist, dental hygienist or dental therapist first if you still have bad breath after making changes to improve your dental hygiene.

You may also need to visit your GP as there may be a medical cause that needs to be investigated.

Don't try to hide the smell of your breath when seeking medical advice. This is because it may make it more difficult to find out what's causing the problem.

Checking if you have bad breath

It's not always easy to tell if you have bad breath. Other people may notice it first, but they could feel uncomfortable telling you.

A simple test to find out whether you have bad breath is to lick the inside of your wrist with the back of your tongue.

You should wait a few seconds until the saliva dries. If your wrist smells unpleasant, it's likely your breath does, too.

The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.

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