Holy Halitosis! How To ID Bad Breath — And Get Fresh Again

Wondering why people stand feet away from you when having conversation? Have you noticed that your tongue is looking a little white or yellow? Hey, no judgments, might have bad breath. Consider us good friends for letting you know.
Before you panic and vow never to speak again, rest assured that everyone's mouth could use some freshening up. Whether it hits us first thing in the morning or after a serving of garlic-laden mashed potatoes, smelly breath is just bound to happen. So, now that we feel sufficiently embarrassed, is there anything we can do? We turned to two dentistry pros to answer all our stanky breath questions. Open wide and say "ahh" — because you've got a lot of information to digest.

Why does our breath smell?
The entire cause of bad breath really comes down to an overgrowth of bad bacteria in your mouth. According to Dr. Irwin Smigel, President of the ASDA and creator of Supersmile, more than 85% of bad breath is caused by tongue bacteria. But, how did the bacteria even get there in the first place? We can thank dry mouth for that. "When saliva is not produced, bad bacteria takes over and causes bad breath," says aesthetic dentist Dr. Michael Apa. Other dentistry work, like ill-fitting crowns or faulty veneers, can cause a build-up of bacteria as well, he adds. Uh, remind us to skip the teeth bling.

How do you kill coffee breath and other hard-to-treat stinkies?
Thankfully the answer is something we're probably doing already — popping a piece of gum. "The act of chewing stimulates salivary glands and increases saliva, taking care of dry mouth and rinsing away the dry breath. Gum now should also have xylitol, which fights cavities," says Dr. Apa. Not a fan of the sticky stuff? Dr. Smigel has an alternative. "The best way to kill bad breath is by cleaning your tongue with a tongue cleaner, in order to remove bacteria that causes bad breath and eventually gum disease."

Do breath strips actually work to freshen up bad breath?
Unfortunately, many breath strips are not the best solution. "Breath strips dissolve through alcohol, and alcohol will dry out your mouth," says Dr. Apa. "The initial pop of a breath strip will give you a minty feel, but the last thing will be dry mouth bringing back bad breath faster." Great — so eating breath strips like they're pretzels was actually making things worse. Good to know.


Is halitosis a clinical issue, or does it cover all bad breath?
Dr. Smigel clarifies, "Halitosis is simply the medical term for bad breath. Chronic halitosis refers to an actual condition that results in consistently bad breath." But, don't worry if you're diagnosed as such. Halitosis is treatable with pilocarpine. Originally obtainable in pill form, pilocarpine is even coming out in over-the-counter mouth washes for the truly afflicted.

So, uh, how do you know if you have bad breath?
Luckily, we have friends who will break the news to us. But, there are also some tricks that don't involve blowing your friends away, literally. First, check out your tongue. Dr. Smigel says that if it's pretty and pink, you're probably fine. However, if it's yellow or white, you probably need to clean your tongue. "Another quick trick has more to do with checking the odor," he says. "Breathe into a small brown paper bag, and smell it." Or, if you've got some metallic spoons laying around, Dr. Apa suggests licking the back of a metallic spoon and smelling it to determine if you need a piece of gum.

Are any foods good for bad breath?
Both Dr. Smigel and Dr. Apa agree that there's little evidence that food such as parsley will mask the sauerkraut-laden hotdog we just ate. And, forget about combatting garlic. "Garlic is a whole different animal — it gets into the skin and bloodstream and emits that odor through your blood and saliva," explains Dr. Apa.


Do products like tongue cleaners work, or is brushing your tongue enough?
While it's generally a smart idea to practice proper hygiene, we often overlook taking care of our tongues. "Brushing your tongue with a toothbrush does not remove the bacteria, but rather just re-circulates the bacteria around the mouth," says Dr. Smigel. And, Dr. Apa adds, it's also important to tend to your entire mouth and follow good hygiene overall — that means brushing, flossing, and using a mouth rinse twice daily. Watch out for high alcohol content, however, in those rinses, which will cause dry mouth and kill too much bacteria, including the good kind. Finally, don't skip those routine dental cleanings. (But you knew that.)

When is bad breath a sign of something bigger?
Both dentists concur that chronic bad breath could be a warning sign of a more serious condition such as gum disease, improper dental restoration, or even tooth decay. It's important to check in with your dentist, especially if you notice a salty sour taste in your mouth.

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Supersmile Ripple Edge Tongue Cleaner set, $22, available at Supersmile

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