How To Control Your Bad Breath, According To Science

Illustrated by Julia Sadler.
This article was originally published on June 29, 2015.

One of the worst early a.m. surprises — aside from the realization that we are no longer peacefully asleep — is bad morning breath. We all fall prey to it at some point, but getting rid of it for good is trickier than we might think.

What is it that sours your (usually) minty-fresh breath? Well, there are a couple of causes, but you'll be happy to know that most of them are totally normal. Usually you can either blame bacteria — which emit odor after breaking down dead cells in your mouth — or the food you're eating. For instance, as this new SciShow video explains, morning breath is often caused by an overgrowth of bacteria, because you produce less of your cleansing saliva while you're asleep.

But as obvious as your stink may be to everyone else, finding out if you have bad-smelling breath (technical term: halitosis) can be pretty difficult. Since we're all accustomed to our own scents, breathing into your hand actually isn't the best way to smell what everyone else is inhaling when you're sharing water-cooler gossip. Instead, your tongue is usually a more accurate indicator of any detectable stink.

So, to find out if your breath is less-than-sparkling, try scraping the top of your tongue, towards the back, with a spoon (or licking the back of your hand), letting it dry for a few seconds, and then taking a whiff. You could also hold out for a more high-tech version of this test in the form of a "breathometer" (hopefully available soon). Or, you can always rely on your close friends to be very honest with you.

Once you've been diagnosed with a breath issue (either via spoon or spooning), your next task will probably be to get rid of it. Unfortunately, we're still learning how to keep bad breath away permanently. Researchers think the key may be to focus less on getting rid of all your mouth bacteria, and more on finding ways to foster the ones we want to stick around. Like your gut and your vagina, your mouth has its own fragile microbiome that needs to be kept in balance. So, watch the smooches.

While we're waiting for those bacteria-based treatments to come through, we can still turn to Lifehacker for a few tried-and-true ways to keep bad breath under control. And, yep, they mostly come down to good, old-fashioned oral hygiene:

Mouthwash, mouth rinses, and toothpastes usually contain alcohol or other compounds that can kill those odor-causing bacteria. But, they'll be back, so it's best to clean your mouth after every meal if possible. And, don't forget to floss!

The majority of those bacterial culprits are found in plaque towards the back of your tongue. So, you can try scraping your tongue to get rid of them — again, after every meal (if that's not too weird).

Although we'd never tell you to give up tasty garlic forever, choosing breath-friendly foods can go a long way in certain, uh, mouthy situations. That means avoiding the usual offenders (sorry, onions) and also includes certain cheeses and meats as well as alcohol and coffee.

And, since most bad-breath cases stem from a dry mouth, wash those meals down with plenty of water.

Finally, if nothing's working, you might want to check for an actual dental problem. While bad breath is usually caused by normal bacteria or food, it can also be a sign of something more serious, such as gum disease.

So, give those tips a shot and you should be ready for a full day of up-close conversations. Your already-brilliant ideas will smell as good as they sound.
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