You may have wondered from time to time if the whole concept of bad breath wasn’t invented by the modern makers of toothpaste and mouthwash. But while advertising has certainly heightened our attention and sensitivity to “halitosis,” the world’s earliest known medical writings (including those of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks) mused on the problem of stinky breath and proposed cures — like sucking on sweets infused with frankincense, myrrh, and cinnamon, using a toothbrush with bristles made of pig’s hair, and chewing on certain kinds of twigs.
While the remedies have advanced, we’re still grappling with the same problem a few thousand years later.
What accounts for the enduring desire not to cause olfactory offense?
Some evolutionary biologists speculate that all body odors — including one’s breath — play a role in mate selection, acting as a signal of health or disease. Or, it may just be that humans simply don’t like stinky and icky things — that our brains viscerally recoil at the scent of postnasal drip stewing on another person’s tongue (yes, that’s part of what causes bad breath).
Whatever’s behind our dislike for bad breath, and however the stigma has been deepened in the modern day, the bottom line is that halitosis can be detrimental to one’s professional, social, and romantic endeavors. If people seem to stand a little farther back from you than normal, or your lady friend is not so eager to receive your smooches, maybe it’s time you beat your bad breath and became more confident getting intimate with folks.
Today we’ll talk about how.
How Do You Know If You Have Bad Breath?
Knowing whether your breath smells bad or not is a lot like knowing whether you’ve got a pleasant or shrill sounding voice. You often can’t tell on your own.
And because most people are kind and thoughtful, they’re not going to tell you to your face that your breath reeks to high heaven. So it’s pretty easy to go through life with no clue that you have a dumpster mouth.
If you suspect your pie hole is piping out noxious fumes, the easiest way to know for certain is simply to ask someone you trust. They’ll let you know. Luckily, I’ve got a wife who doesn’t beat around the bush about things. If my breath is terrible, she’ll tell me it smells like I just ate a diaper that I found on the beach and that frenching is on hiatus until things improve.
If you don’t feel comfortable asking someone if your breath smells bad, you can try to check it out yourself. You’ve probably seen the trick where someone breathes into their hand and then smells it. That can work sometimes, but it’s not fail-proof.
There are two better ways to figure out if your breath smells on your own. First, smell your dental floss after you’ve used it. If it smells like the inside of a used protein shaker that’s been sitting in a hot car for three days, you’ve got bad breath. Second, get a tongue scraper (see below) and use it. Smell the gunk that accumulates on the scraper. If it gives you dry heaves, you’ve got bad breath.
Time to tackle it.
What Causes Bad Breath?
The causes of bad breath are many and varied, and will determine how you treat it.
Bacteria build-up in mouth due to poor oral hygiene. Ever wonder why bad breath can smell like butt? Well, it’s because your bad breath is the collective “fart” of millions of bacteria in your mouth. If you don’t regularly brush and floss, bacteria start to build up a “biofilm” on your gums and tongue and in the pockets between your teeth.
After you’ve noshed on a QT taquito, these bacteria start feasting on the food particles that remain in your mouth. Just like you, after the biofilm eats, gas is created that needs to be expelled, and so the bacteria “fart,” so to speak, and your mouth consequently smells like the inside of a Dutch oven (and not the kind that produces delicious peach cobbler).
Bacteria build-up is the most common cause of bad breath, but it’s also the easiest to fix. It just takes some consistent oral hygiene. We’ll share a bad breath-destroying regimen below.
Dehydration. Saliva is nature’s mouthwash. It has antibacterial agents that kill those farting bacteria, and it also washes your teeth and mouth clear of the microorganisms and the debris they feed on.
But if you’re dehydrated, your body can’t produce enough of this natural mouthwash, leading to a build-up of gaseous bacteria in your mouth. A dry mouth isn’t only caused by not drinking enough fluids, however. Your mouth can dry out from doing a lot of talking/lecturing, smoking, and mouth breathing as well.
Certain foods. While all foods create sulfuric, smelly gases in your mouth, some are worse offenders than others:
Onions and garlic. Any food that smells like body odor is pretty naturally going to give you breath that smells the same. Both onions and garlic contain compounds that raise the amount of sulfuric gases in your mouth, and are also absorbed into your bloodstream and then expelled when you exhale. So if you’ve got a date or will be talking to people in close quarters, skip the onion burger and garlic confit.
Sugar. The sweet stuff is like Miracle Grow for bacteria in your mouth. It’s easy for bacteria to break down and provides the fuel it needs to grow and spread. You don’t have to give up sugar completely, but take it easy on sugary foods like sodas, cookies, and ice cream.
Coffee. While a cup of joe can help get you going in the morning, it can also leave you with stinky “coffee breath” — an aromatic combination of coffee and butt.
There are a couple reasons coffee can leave your saucebox smelling so malodorous and stale. First, coffee has sulfur compounds in it, which, as we know, stink. Second, the caffeine in coffee dehydrates your mouth, creating a friendly environment for the growth of bacteria. Like sugar, you don’t need to avoid coffee altogether, but take it easy.
Alcohol. Spirits also dehydrate the mouth, allowing bacteria to grow. Again, just something to keep in mind when you’re out having drinks on a date and looking to go for that first kiss.
Tonsil stones. If you do a good job of staying on top of your oral hygiene, but still experience rancid breath, you may have tonsil stones. Tonsil stones are clumps of bacteria and food debris that get stuck in the crevices of your tonsils. They also smell really, really terrible.
You can usually remove tonsil stones at home with your toothbrush or a water pick. For severe cases of tonsil stones, you may need a dentist to remove them.
Acid reflux. Another cause of oral hygiene-resistant bad breath is acid reflux. Acid reflux, a.k.a. heartburn, is when stomach contents come back into the esophagus. Besides being uncomfortable, it makes your breath smell like vomit 24/7. If you think you have bad breath from chronic acid reflux, ask your doctor for an antacid recommendation. Bad breath will often improve a week or two after you start taking it.
Fasting. I do short fasts from food about once a week. My wife knows when I’m fasting because “fasting breath” sets in and it doesn’t smell good. Now, you might be wondering, “If bacteria need food to grow and let off smelly mouth gas and you haven’t eaten anything in 16 hours, how can you have stinky breath?” Well, eating food causes your saliva glands to start working to help kickstart the digestion process. As mentioned above, saliva also has antibacterial properties and washes away bad breath-inducing bacteria. When you’re fasting, your mouth doesn’t produce as much saliva. Ergo, you’re going to have more bacteria in your mouth that will cause bad breath. A simple solution to this is to up your intake of water while you’re abstaining from food.
Low carb diets. The goal of low carb diets is to get into a state called ketosis in which the body uses fat, or ketones, instead of carbohydrates for fuel. One way to tell if you’re in ketosis is to use urine strips you can get at the drugstore. A less scientific way to check is to simply smell your own breath. Does it smell bad? The good news is that you’re likely burning fat for fuel. The bad news is that while this process may be helping you drop some lbs, it makes your breath stink.
Though you can mask and minimize it, no amount of teeth brushing, flossing, or mouthwash will entirely eliminate bad breath from ketosis. Consider the bad breath a small price to pay for fat-burning nirvana. Or add it to the high price to pay for giving up pizza and hot dinner rolls. Depending on your attitude towards the diet on a particular day, of course.
Various diseases and sicknesses. Diabetes, liver disease, and bronchitis can all cause halitosis. If you’re experiencing bad breath and have eliminated other causes like lax oral hygiene, tonsil stones, or dehydration, make a trip to the doctor to see if it’s a symptom of a bigger problem.
You’ll also experience bad breath when you come down with a cold or sinus infection. The mucus drainage from the nasal congestion smells bad on its own. Combine that with the bacteria in your mouth, and you’ve got a Superfund site of olfactory wretchedness.
How to Beat (Back) Bad Breath
It’s not possible to banish bad breath for good. No matter how well you clean your mouth at night, you only remove the surface layer of bacteria, and it all grows back by the time you wake up in the morning.
But while bad breath is always crouching at the door, regular maintenance can certainly do a bang-up job of beating it back and keeping your mouth fresh from day to day. Just stick to a consistent oral hygiene routine like this:
Brush your teeth morning and night. Use a quality toothbrush and pretty much any toothpaste. Just make sure to brush for two whole minutes. My dental hygienist recommends using a manual tooth brush in the morning, in order to thoroughly (but gently) scrub your teeth and gums. Besides cleaning the teeth and gums, she recommends brushing your entire mouth including your tongue (more on that area in a bit), inside your cheeks, and the roof of your mouth. Bad breath-inducing bacteria live in those places, too. In the evening, she recommends using an electric toothbrush to go after the plaque build-up from a new angle with those super-sonic waves.
Floss. When it comes to oral hygiene, flossing typically gets the short shrift. Not only will skipping flossing result in you getting tsk-tsk-ed by your dental hygienist for the 4mm pockets in your gums, and lead to periodontal disease, but it will also give you diaper mouth. All that food and debris stuck between your teeth is like a cruise ship buffet for oral bacteria. Eliminate their smorgasbord with nightly flossing. If you want to go the extra mile, floss in the morning, too.
Scrape your tongue. Your tongue is like a lush carpet, and bacteria, food particles, and discharge from your sinuses get caught in the “fibers,” particularly at the very back of the tongue, which is drier and doesn’t get as much natural or manual cleansing. In fact, it’s estimated that 80-90% of mouth-related bad breath is caused by the bacteria on your tongue.
Next to flossing, the one thing that will provide the most bang for your buck in eliminating your bad breath is to not only brush your tongue well, but to also scrape it after you brush and floss each morning and night. You’ll be amazed at the gunk that comes off when you do. It kind of looks yellow. If you’re feeling brave, give that gunk a sniff. When you do, you’ll thank me for adding the tongue scraper to your routine. Your gal will also thank me the next time you’re frenching. Though it might be kind of weird for her to be thinking of me while kissing you.
Rinse with an alcohol-free mouthwash. While the alcohol in most mouthwashes gives you that satisfying antiseptic burning, go with a mouthwash that’s alcohol-free. Remember, alcohol dehydrates the mouth and a dehydrated mouth is a stinky mouth.
Keep hydrated. Beyond a consistent regimen of brushing, flossing, and tongue scraping, nothing will do more for your breath than drinking water throughout the day to regularly irrigate your would-be sewer mouth.
Still have bad breath after following the above attack plan?
As discussed above, several causes of bad breath exist. For example, if your bad breath is caused by tonsil stones, no amount of tooth brushing or flossing will make it go away. You’ve got to get rid of the tonsil stones.
So if your breath still smells bad after a few weeks of following the above attack plan, start exploring other causes of it. For example, limit your coffee or sugar for a week, and see what happens.
If you don’t get anywhere with experimenting on your own, you may need to talk to your doctor to see if the bad breath is a symptom of something more problematic.
Soon enough you’ll be ready for your next make-out session, no gas mask needed.