7 Causes of Bad Breath, Explained

We all get stuck talking to someone with bad breath every so often, and it’s never fun. Sometimes it’s your well-meaning (but terminally coffee-breathed) boss trapping you in the break room for an in-depth conversation about spreadsheets. Other times, it’s your sweet, sweet partner who just has to give you a kiss the second they roll over every morning. And if you have pets, you’ve no doubt allowed their adorableness to blind you to their shockingly nasty breath on occasion, too. But what’s worse than being on the receiving end of bad breath? Knowing that you’re the one with the smelly mouth and not knowing why. So what are the causes of bad breath, and how can you fix them?

First of all, a certain amount of bad breath (or halitosis, if you want to get technical) is unavoidable. When you first wake up in the morning, or after you eat a tuna salad sandwich, you’re going to have bad breath. However, if your bad breath goes beyond what’s normal, and no amount of teeth-brushing can eradicate it, then you may be doing some things that are unintentionally causing your oral odor. The good news is, once you've determined the source of your bad breath, it's usually a very easy problem to fix. So if your breath has been off lately and you’re not sure why, then read on — one of these seven possible causes is probably the culprit.

1. You’re Not Taking Your Oral Hygiene Seriously Enough

If you’re not brushing at least twice a day and flossing once a day, you should reconsider — because bad breath is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to problems created by poor dental hygiene. When you don’t brush after eating, the food particles in your mouth become a springboard for bacterial growth, causing you to have bad breath and develop cavities. Sustained bad oral hygiene will eventually lead to all sorts of other mouth-related unpleasantness, like gum disease.

Also, floss! Brushing doesn’t get everything, and when you skip your nightly flossing, you’re missing those food particles that get stuck between your teeth and gums. If left unattended, they can cause not only bacterial growth but also gum problems. I know flossing is a pain, but it really doesn’t take that long, and there are plenty of gentle flosses that won’t hurt your gums. Plus, if you don’t do it, your breath (and your whole mouth) is going to suffer.

2. It Might Just Be Your Food Choices

I’m sure you’re aware that eating onions, fish, garlic and other pungent foods will lead to instant bad breath. And, sadly, a thorough brushing and mouth-washing won’t always undo the bad breath that these foods cause. What you may not realize is that when you eat foods with strong odors, you’re probably going to be stuck with the bad breath they cause until they’ve passed through your system.

Digestion is just beginning when food starts to break down in your mouth, and foods like garlic can cause bad breath and off-putting bodily scents until they're completely digested. So no matter how much you try to mask these food-odors, you’ll be stuck with them until after the bad-breath causing food you've eaten has been absorbed into your bloodstream, transferred to your lungs, and finally been given off through your breath. Unless you’re okay with swearing off smelly foods for good, be prepared to deal with the stubborn bad breath they lead to. Or, just learn how to plan ahead, and maybe don’t eat them right before a make-out session or an important meeting.

3. Dry Mouth Could Be to Blame

Certain medications can cause dry mouth (xerostomia is the technical term), which can lead to bad breath. Dry mouth occurs when you’re not making enough saliva to combat the acids caused by plaque, and it also allows the dead cells that naturally collect on your tongue, cheeks, and gums to build up. When this buildup doesn’t get washed away by your saliva, all those cells start to decompose, causing your breath to reek.

If you think dry mouth is causing your bad breath, talk to your doctor so you can rule out any of your medications as the culprit. If you discover your meds aren’t to blame, know that dry mouth can also be caused by salivary gland issues and mouth-breathing. Also, while this isn’t a long-term solution to chronic dry mouth, know that sugar-free gums and mints can help boost your saliva production.

4. You Could Have Gum Disease

Chronic bad breath could be a sign of gum disease. Gum (or periodontal) disease happens when the bacteria that forms in your mouth as a result of plaque buildup on your teeth causes toxins to develop and aggravate your gums. If you think gum disease could be what’s behind your bad breath, talk to your dentist ASAP — if left untreated, gum disease can lead to serious damage of your gums and jawbone.

5. Illnesses and Sinus Problems Could Be the Source

If you’re sick, or you have regular sinus problems, don’t be surprised if your breath is a little bit off. Acid reflux, bronchitis, and sinus infections are just a few of the illness that could be causing your bad breath. Focus on taking care of yourself and getting better. Once you’re back to normal, your breath should be, too.

6. You Use Tobacco Products Regularly

Obviously, if you smoke cigarettes or cigars on a regular basis, you’re going to have bad breath on a regular basis, too. There’s really just no way around it. Plus, smoking stains your teeth and irritates your gums. So if the myriad of other health and cosmetic concerns tied to frequent smoking aren’t reason enough for you to cut back, consider cutting back for the sake of your breath. Because no amount of mouthwash or toothpaste can truly neutralize the gross breath cigarettes create.

7. You’re Not Drinking Enough Water

I’m sure you don’t need one more person telling you to drink more water, but drinking lots of water is not only good for your body, it’s good for your breath. Keeping your mouth moisturized prevents all that bacteria we were talking about above from collecting on the surfaces of your mouth and stinking up your breath.

The Bottom Line

Bad breath is kind of embarrassing, and I know seeking help for it is a little awkward. But it’s something we’ve all dealt with, or will deal with, and it ties directly to your oral health. So don’t be shy. Take care of your teeth and gums, go to your dental appointments, stay hydrated, and you should see positive results.

However, if nothing seems to fix your bad breath, and even your dentist is out of answers, then your breath could be a side effect of a non-oral condition. If you think this might be the case, make an appointment to talk to your primary care physician about it. You don’t want to ignore what your body might be trying to tell you.

Images: db Photography/flickr, Giphy/(4)