Bad breath: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention

Bad breath, also called halitosis, can be embarrassing and in some cases may even cause anxiety. It’s no wonder that store shelves are overflowing with gum, mints, mouthwashes and other products designed to fight bad breath. But many of these products are only temporary measures because they don’t address the cause of the problem.

Certain foods, health conditions and habits are among the causes of bad breath. In many cases, you can improve bad breath with consistent proper dental hygiene. If simple self-care techniques don’t solve the problem, see your dentist or physician to be sure a more serious condition isn’t causing your bad breath.


Bad breath odors vary, depending on the source or the underlying cause. Some people worry too much about their breath even though they have little or no mouth odor, while others have bad breath and don’t know it. Because it’s difficult to assess how your own breath smells, ask a close friend or relative to confirm your bad-breath questions.

When to see a doctor

If you have bad breath, review your oral hygiene habits. Try making lifestyle changes, such as brushing your teeth and tongue after eating, using dental floss, and drinking plenty of water.


Most bad breath starts in your mouth, and there are many possible causes. They include:

  • Food. The breakdown of food particles in and around your teeth can increase bacteria and cause a foul odor. Eating certain foods, such as onions, garlic and spices, also can cause bad breath. After you digest these foods, they enter your bloodstream, are carried to your lungs and affect your breath.
  • Tobacco products. Smoking causes its own unpleasant mouth odor. Smokers and oral tobacco users are also more likely to have gum disease, another source of bad breath.
  • Poor dental hygiene. If you don’t brush and floss daily, food particles remain in your mouth, causing bad breath. A colorless, sticky film of bacteria (plaque) forms on your teeth. If not brushed away, plaque can irritate your gums and eventually form plaque-filled pockets between your teeth and gums (periodontitis). Your tongue also can trap bacteria that produce odors. Dentures that aren’t cleaned regularly or don’t fit properly can harbor odor-causing bacteria and food particles.
  • Dry mouth. Saliva helps cleanse your mouth, removing particles that cause bad odors. A condition called dry mouth or xerostomia (zeer–o-STOE-me-uh) can contribute to bad breath because production of saliva is decreased. Dry mouth naturally occurs during sleep, leading to “morning breath,” and it worsens if you sleep with your mouth open. Chronic dry mouth can be caused by a problem with your salivary glands and some diseases.
  • Medications. Some medications can indirectly produce bad breath by contributing to dry mouth. Others can be broken down in the body to release chemicals that can be carried on your breath.
  • Infections in your mouth. Bad breath can be caused by surgical wounds after oral surgery, such as tooth removal, or as a result of tooth decay, gum disease or mouth sores.
  • Other mouth, nose and throat conditions. Bad breath can occasionally stem from small stones that form in the tonsils and are covered with bacteria that produce odor. Infections or chronic inflammation in the nose, sinuses or throat, which can contribute to postnasal drip, also can cause bad breath.
  • Other causes. Diseases, such as some cancers, and conditions such as metabolic disorders, can cause a distinctive breath odor as a result of chemicals they produce. Chronic reflux of stomach acids (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) can be associated with bad breath. Bad breath in young children can be caused by a foreign body, such as a piece of food, lodged in a nostril.

Prevention of Bad Breath

  • Brush your teeth regularly: Brush your teeth at least twice a day, preferably after meals, using gum toothpaste.
  • Floss daily: Flossing helps remove food particles and plaque from between your teeth and along the gumline, where a toothbrush may not reach.
  • Clean your tongue: Use a tongue scraper or the back of your toothbrush to gently clean your tongue. Bacteria can accumulate on the tongue’s surface and contribute to bad breath.
  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help maintain proper saliva production, which can help wash away bacteria and food particles in your mouth.
  • Avoid tobacco products: Smoking and using tobacco products can cause bad breath. Quitting or reducing tobacco use can help improve your breath.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine: Both alcohol and caffeine can contribute to dry mouth, which can lead to bad breath. Try to consume them in moderation and drink water to stay hydrated.
  • Avoid foods that can cause bad breath: Certain foods like garlic, onions, and spicy foods can cause temporary bad breath. Avoid them if you’re concerned about bad breath before social or professional events.
  • Chew sugarless gum or mints: Chewing sugar-free gum or sucking on sugarless mints can help stimulate saliva production and temporarily mask bad breath.
  • Mouthwash: Use an antimicrobial or antibacterial mouthwash that can help kill bacteria in your mouth. However, be cautious about using mouthwash with alcohol, as it can contribute to dry mouth.
  • Visit your dentist regularly: Regular dental check-ups and cleanings can help identify and address any underlying dental issues that may be causing bad breath, such as gum disease or cavities.
  • Treat underlying medical conditions: If you suspect that a medical condition is causing your bad breath, consult a healthcare professional for diagnosis and treatment.
  • Maintain a balanced diet: Eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help prevent bad breath by promoting good overall health.

Remember that chronic bad breath may be a sign of an underlying dental or medical issue, so it’s important to consult with a dentist or healthcare professional if you’re unable to manage bad breath despite practicing good oral hygiene and adopting healthy habits.

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