You know the feeling: whispering sweet nothings to your sweetie, or maybe leaning in to deliver a clever punch line, you suddenly have to pull back, embarrassed, because you just got a whiff of something foul—emanating from your own mouth.
Bad breath can wreak major havoc on people’s social lives, self-esteem, and—ahem—sex lives. Checkout aisles are bursting with mints, mouthwashes, and myriad chewing gums promising to prevent stinky breath. As someone who has refrained from leaning in too close a few times for fear of grossing out her conversation partner, I’m ready to learn what I can do to prevent halitosis from happening in the first place.
Bad breath could be rooted either in our mouths or deeper in our digestive tracts. To treat it, we’ve got to figure out what’s causing it.
Addicted to onion-and-garlic pizza? Foods that contain pungent oils are the most obvious places to look for the sources of bad breath. As we chew and digest these foods, our bloodstream absorbs their oils and carries them to our lungs, then releases the odors through our breath until our bodies have eliminated the food—which can take up to seventy-two hours.
The breakdown of food particles can cause a foul odor as well. “A lot of people think halitosis is caused by eating certain foods,” says Sarah Gwerder, a California-based dental assistant. “Actually, bad breath can be caused by the sulfur compounds released in our digestive process—regardless of the type of food.”
This means that smelly breath often strikes when our oral hygiene slides a bit. “All those little grooves on your tongue trap small food particles and bacteria,” says Gwerder. “Without brushing them away, they sit and cause that odor.” Brushing and flossing your teeth (and tongue!) regularly banishes these odor culprits.
Smoking dries out your mouth and causes its own unpleasant odor. “You can always smell smokers the second they open their mouths,” says Gwerder, “even if they refrained from smoking before coming in.”
Extreme dieters can develop an unsavory “fruity” smell from ketoacidosis, the breakdown of chemicals that happens during fasting. What’s the point of being skinny if you smell too bad for anyone to get near you?
Saliva helps cleanse and moisten our mouths—important, since a dry mouth enables dead cells to gather on the tongue, gums, and cheeks. The dead cells decompose and cause an odor, which is most noticeable when we wake up feeling parched—such as when we have morning breath. Some medications also lead to a dry mouth.
Mouth, Nose, and Throat Conditions
You know how you get that icky sick breath when you’re under the weather? Well, there’s actually a medical reason for it: bad breath is linked to sinus infections because nasal discharge into the back of the throat causes an unsavory smell. Throat infections also cause smelly breath, as does any other upper-respiratory infection (like bronchitis) that leaves us coughing up nasty stuff.
Fixing the Problem
The good news is, we have other options besides shelling out more cash to the breath-freshening industry.
Brush and floss twice a day—always clean your tongue, too, recommends the American Dental Association.
There’s more to bad breath than onions and garlic. According to an article by Dr. Harold Katz, founder of the California Breath Clinics, the following four types of food stimulate sulfur production and cause smelly bacteria to multiply rapidly; avoiding them can work wonders for your breath.
That’s right—sugary gum and mints aren’t going to do anything for bad breath. Turns out, they’re probably going to make it worse. While sugary mints (even the super-strong kind) may leave a fresh taste in our mouths, this doesn’t actually mean that they’ve eliminated all that smelly bacteria—they’ve just masked it momentarily. Sugar actually fuels the malodorous bacteria—helping it multiply into even more foul-smelling little buggers—and leaves behind more plaque, which also causes smelly breath, on teeth and gums.
Citrus fruits and their juices, along with—grrr—my beloved coffee, stimulate the smelly bacteria. Our mouths are basically pH-neutral, so upping the acid makes bacteria grow much faster.
“I cut my dairy intake, and that eliminated my bad breath,” says Melia Jackson. Cheese lovers, brace yourselves: dairy is a huge cause of smelly breath. When we eat yogurt, cheese, and ice cream, we take in amino acids, which morph into those pesky sulfur compounds when they meet with bacteria living in the mouth. This can also happen with other proteins, like chicken, beef, or fish. Try cutting back on protein before a big event, and see if that eliminates the embarrassing odor.
This means anything that leaves your mouth feeing dry—cigarettes, caffeine, and alcohol. This rule gets tricky, though, because some of these ingredients are added to foods or even—strangely enough—are supposed panaceas for bad breath, like mouthwash.
See your dentist, the Mayo Clinic advises, if these self-care techniques don’t work to rule out more serious problems and come up with a bad-breath-killing plan.
Foods to Embrace
The good news is, not everything we love to consume makes our breath stink; certain herbs, fruits, vegetables, and carbs can stop the smell before it starts.
Besides the chew-on-parsley cliché, other sprigs that’ll help kick halitosis to the curb include coriander, cinnamon, tarragon, rosemary, spearmint, eucalyptus, and cardamom. Chew on them or brew a homemade tea by steeping them in hot water.
Crunchy Fruits and Veggies
Celery, carrots, apples, and any other fiber-rich (hence the crunch) fruits and veggies help maintain our oral health. “These foods increase saliva production, keeping the mouth moist and clean,” says Gwerder.
Melons, berries, and broccoli all help create a bacteria-expelling environment. Plus, these foods help prevent gingivitis and gum diseases, making them a good investment all around. Make sure you get your C from whole foods, though, not just one of those chewable pills, because your body absorbs the food form much more easily and fully.
Other Solutions Worth a Try
If gum and mouthwash merely mask bad breath, are there any remedies that will actually eliminate the stench? The American Academy of Periodontology recommends this list of educated choices for consumers (besides the obvious brushing and flossing):
Stay hydrated. To avoid that dry-mouth-induced stench, guzzle plenty of water throughout the day and try to take it easy on coffee, soda, and booze.
Sugarless chewing gum and candy can cause the mouth to produce more saliva, which helps wash away lingering food and bacteria.
Invest in a new toothbrush. Go for a soft-bristled one, and swap it out for a new one every four months or so.
Keep up a relationship with your dentist. Seeing her twice a year for a cleaning keeps plaque at bay and allows her to make sure there isn’t any underlying problem causing your breath issues.
Eat a cracker or two. Another reason to shun those low-carb diets: “ketone breath” is just not pretty. Mix in some healthy whole carbs, and your body and your mouth will thank you.
The most important thing? Don’t believe that your bad breath is that big a deal. Try some of these fixes, chat with your dentist, and flash those pearly (fresh-smelling) whites all around—because you know that clever punch line is worth delivering.