What causes bad breath and how can I prevent it?
Does your mouth have a peculiar odour? If so, it could be the sign of a more serious health problem
Not-so-minty-fresh breath? It’s most likely down to something you ate or because you haven’t brushed your teeth properly.
But occasionally, particular smells carried on the breath can be caused by a more serious health problem.
Dr Harold Katz, a dentist specialising in bacteriology, says: “Almost all bad breath odours are caused by anaerobic bacteria living in the back of the tongue, throat and tonsils, which break down the proteins in our food as part of their daily job.
“However, when someone isn’t entirely healthy, it can be harder for these bacteria to break down these proteins as they should, leaving particular chemical smells behind.”
So if anyone has noticed any of these smells on your breath, it’s definitely worth talking to your dentist.
If your breath smells of...Pear Drops
It could be... diabetes
One of the tell-tale signs of undiagnosed Type 1 diabetes is the faint smell of pear drops, or ammonia, on the breath. This occurs because a lack of insulin means the body can’t use sugar for energy and starts to break down the fat instead. Waste products called ketones build up and are exhaled.
Freshen up: See your GP for a urine test, particularly if you have excessive thirst, extreme tiredness, unexplained weight loss and the need to pass urine more frequently.
If your breath smells of...mothballs
It could be... sinus problems
People with sinus problems often emit a scent reminiscent of mothballs. Dr Katz, who is also the founder of The Breath Co oral-health products, explains: “This is because the mucus formed when you have a stuffy nose or congested throat contains very dense proteins. It is these proteins, which are hard for the body to break down, that contain that very distinctive odour.”
Freshen up: Try over-the-counter decongestants or see your GP if you think you may have sinusitis.
If your breath smells of...sour milk
It could be... due to diet. High-protein, no-carb diets can leave you with foul-smelling breath. Again, as with diabetes, it’s those ketones that are to blame. As the body has fewer carbs to turn into energy, it begins to burn fat and proteins.
In this instance, the proteins consumed from a no-carb diet produce this unpleasant smell.
Freshen up: No amount of brushing, flossing or mouthwash can get rid of this particular smell, so you might want to reintroduce more carbs into your diet.
If your breath smells of... rotting flesh
It could be... tonsillitis
Dr Katz says: “When tonsils are infected and inflamed, it makes it difficult for the anaerobic bacteria at the back of the tongue to break down chemicals as usual. Sulphur-producing bacteria breed deep in the tonsils, and the infected ones can’t break it down.
“It’s this sulphuric smell that
makes the breath smell so bad when someone is suffering from tonsillitis or tonsil stones,” he adds.
In rare cases, this smell could also indicate cirrhosis of the liver.
Freshen up: Most cases of tonsillitis clear up without treatment within a week. In the meantime, drink plenty of water and try gargling with a mild antiseptic solution.
If your breath smells of ... morning breath
It could be... xerostomia (dry mouth)
No one’s mouth smells as fresh as a daisy when they wake up, but if normal brushing doesn’t alleviate the problem, then there might be another underlying cause.
Dr Katz says: “Some people suffer from xerostomia, or dry mouth, where the saliva isn’t flowing as it should.
“A lack of saliva can cause bacteria to build up, leading to bad breath. Unless saliva levels are brought back to normal, the consequences of xerostomia are potentially long term and serious, usually involving tooth decay and gum disease.”
Freshen up: People suffering from dry mouth will often experience other symptoms, such as unrelenting thirst, chapped lips and/or cracked mouth corners, sore throat and a burning sensation on the tongue.
If you have these, see your doctor and make sure you drink plenty of water.
If your breath smells of... fish
It could be... kidney problems
Nitrogen is the main culprit when it comes to giving out fishy smells. If your breath has a fishy odour, your kidneys might be to blame.
Dr Katz says: “If your kidneys are not functioning properly, there will be a build-up of nitrogen.”
Freshen up: If you notice a fishy smell on your breath, see your GP who can arrange a kidney function test.
If your breath smells of...faeces
It could be... infected gums
Rotting tissue can mimic the smell of faeces because of the production of chemicals by anaerobic bacteria.
Dr Katz says: “The number-one infection in modern humans is infected gums. So the smell of faeces can just as easily come from a lack of flossing as from a blockage in the bowel.”
Freshen up: Make sure you floss and brush carefully twice a day. Visit your dentist or hygienist regularly.