Help! I Have Halitosis!

Bad breath? No thanks. Here are causes and treatment options for bad breath.

Woman covering her mouth
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Selling your strengths in a job interview. Whispering a secret. Leaning in for a kiss. What could make these moments mortifying for you and unbearable for the other person? Two words: Bad breath. Hopefully by now someone has informed you (gently) of your halitosis, or – even better – you figured it out yourself. If so, it's time to take action. And that doesn't mean forming an addiction to mints or downing mouthwash by the liter. Finding out the exact cause of halitosis will help you overcome it most efficiently.

Chances are, your halitosis is related to dental issues. Maybe you've slipped off the gold star chart for oral hygiene and have become lax with brushing, flossing, tongue scrubbing and meeting with a dentist twice a year. If so, particles from the food you eat will hang in your mouth and collect bacteria. Unfortunately, that bacteria doesn't smell quite like peppermint, and foods such as garlic and onions can give your breath a particularly foul funk as you exhale.

Plaque buildup from poor dental hygiene habits can also lead to gum disease – another common culprit of bad breath. What else can turn a good mouth bad-smelling? Decay. Whether its in cavities, poor restorations or those spots under old crowns and fillings, the smell of rot is not pleasant.

[See: Recommended Artificial Saliva and Dry Mouth Therapy Products.]

Yeast infections of the mouth, which are most common among denture-wearers, can spell trouble for your breath, and so can xerostomia – a condition more commonly known as dry mouth. "Saliva is a wonderful cleanser," says Clark Downey, a Richmond, Ind.-based dentist with Aspen Dental. So if you don't have enough saliva, those potent food particles are more likely to stick around.

Smoking and chewing tobacco can also do wonders to stink up your breath, so add halitosis to the lengthy list of reasons to kick the deadly habits. Bad breath has also been linked to medical conditions such as diabetes, kidney and liver disease, lung and sinus infections and bronchitis, according to the American Dental Association.

But don't start fretting about your liver or lungs just yet. "The first thing to rule out is dental issues like cavities or gum disease," says Navid Baradarian, a periodontist (a dentist specialized in gum disease and implants) at Great Neck & Mid-Island Dental Associates in Long Island, New York.

[See: Top Recommended Oral Care Products.]

If, after some dental hygiene soul-searching, you admit your routine could use a boost – get boosting. Brush, floss and don't forget to scrub your tongue, which is a popular hangout for smelly bacteria. Need a primer for priming those pearly whites? Get back to the basics with this oral care guide.

If you start brushing and flossing like a champ and still have bad breath, go to the dentist. He or she can help fix dental causes for bad breath, such as decay and gum disease. Ideally, your dentist will catch gum disease at its mildest stage, called gingivitis. With dental cleanings and improved at-home oral hygiene, you can reverse gingivitis. However, if left untreated, gingivitis can advance to periodontal disease, and "once you have periodontal disease, you need more aggressive treatment," Baradarian says.

A dentist can also rule out dental causes of bad breath and point you toward your primary care physician to check out possible medical conditions. If it turns out you have a medical condition that renders bad breath unavoidable, or if your physician determines you should be on medicine that causes halitosis as a side effect, don't fear.

"There are several kinds of natural remedies," Baradarian says. "Like chewing parsley, eating herbs like rosemary or drinking black tea." The important thing is to find out the cause of your bad breath before committing to one of these remedies or picking up a bottle-of-mouthwash-a-day habit. Not only are these temporary fixes, but they could prevent you from catching serious dental or medical issues.