Bad Breath (Halitosis)

bad breath

What is bad breath?

Bad breath, sometimes called halitosis, means that you have an unpleasant smell on your breath that other people notice when you speak or breathe out. Gum disease is a common cause of bad breath and a dentist will be able to advice on treatment if you have gum disease.

A simple test which you can do yourself to detect bad breath:

Lick the inside of your wrist. Wait a few seconds for the saliva to dry. Then smell the licked part of the wrist. If you detect an unpleasant smell, you are likely to have bad breath.

What are the causes and types of bad breath?

  • Coming from within the mouth, usually due to gum diseases or carious teeth.
  • Morning bad breath
  • Dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • Foods, drinks and medicines
  • Smoking
  • Crash dieting or fasting

Medical causes

Other medical causes are uncommon. A polyp in your nose, sinusitis or a small object stuck in a nostril (occurs most commonly in children) can cause a bad smell. Infections or tumors of the lung, throat, mouth or tonsils are sometimes a cause.

Bad breath coming from within the mouth

In most people who have bad breath, the bad smell is thought to come from bacteria and debris within the mouth. As the bacteria break down proteins and other debris in the mouth, they release foul-smelling gases.

Common causes are:

  • Food stuck between teeth.
  • Plaque, calculus and gum disease.
  • Coating on the back of the tongue.

The main treatment of bad breath coming from within the mouth is good oral hygiene. Aim to get into a regular habit of good oral hygiene - in particular, teeth brushing and cleaning between teeth.

Teeth brushing

Brush your teeth at least twice a day. Use a soft-tufted brush and a toothpaste that contains fluoride. Get a new toothbrush every 3-4 months. Studies suggest that powered toothbrushes with a rotation-oscillation action (where the brush rapidly changes direction of rotation) remove plaque and debris better than manual brushes. Ideally, brush your teeth either just before eating, or at least an hour after eating.

Cleaning between teeth

Clean between your teeth after brushing once a day, but ideally twice a day. This is to remove plaque from between teeth. Dental floss is commonly used to do this. However, some studies suggest that small interdental brushes may do a better job than floss.

The gums may bleed a little when you start to clean between your teeth. This should settle in a few days. If it persists, see a dentist, as regular bleeding may indicate gum disease.

Food and drink

Sugars and sugary foods in the mouth are the main foods that bacteria thrive on to make acid which can contribute to tooth decay. Acid foods and drinks are also a main factor in tooth erosion.

Other general tips

  • If you smoke, try to stop.
  • If children need medicines, wherever possible use sugar-free medicines.
  • Have regular dental checks at intervals recommended by your dentist (normally at least once a year).

Other things you can do if you have bad breath


Consider using a mouthwash each day. Chemicals in the mouthwash aim to kill bacteria and/or neutralize any chemicals that cause bad breath.

Tongue cleaning

Consider cleaning the back of your tongue each day. Some people do this with a soft toothbrush dipped in mouthwash (not toothpaste). An easier and better way is to buy a special plastic tongue scraper from a pharmacy.

Chewing gum

Some people chew sugar-free gum after each meal. Saliva helps to flush the mouth to help clear any debris remaining from the meal. If you have dentures and have bad breath, you may not be cleaning them properly.

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