Whether it’s morning breath or the garlic bread at dinner, most of us experience bad breath once in a while. Technically known as halitosis, this is usually a minor and temporary concern.
But for some, halitosis is a chronic and embarrassing condition. Although underlying medical conditions can be responsible for some cases of bad breath, thankfully most causes of halitosis are not serious.
The most common source of halitosis is sulphur-containing compounds released from bacteria living inside the mouth. We are all familiar with the ability of sulphur to create bad smells; onions, garlic and rotten eggs all owe their stink to sulphur. About 85 per cent of all bad breath is caused by oral bacteria, and about 50 per cent of this is from bacteria on the tongue.
More serious causes of halitosis include disease of the gums, lungs, throat, sinuses or digestive tract. Diabetes, autoimmune diseases or inadequate carbohydrate intake can also lead to foul-smelling breath.
When in doubt about the cause or severity, consult with a health care professional. Also, be aware of some of the red flags that may indicate that halitosis is a symptom of something more serious (see sidebar “Red flags”).
Prevention and treatment
The best treatment for bad breath will depend on the underlying cause. Issues such as diabetes, poor diet, gastrointestinal disease, medications, infections and other less common causes of halitosis should be discussed with, and treated by, a health care practitioner. For the majority of cases of halitosis, which are due to oral bacteria, the following approaches may be helpful.
Practise good oral hygiene
Floss daily, brush teeth after meals and replace your toothbrush every couple of months. Proper oral hygiene habits such as these help to keep bacteria levels in check. They also reduce the risk of gum and tooth disease, including periodontitis, which is associated with the presence of increased levels of odour-producing bacteria.
Clean your tongue
The most likely cause of bad breath is the tongue, where a large population of bacteria can happily reside for long periods of time. This is why tooth brushing and flossing alone may not be adequate to eliminate halitosis.
About 50 per cent of bad breath that originates in the mouth (and is not due to underlying illness or medications) is thought to be related to tongue bacteria. Tongue cleaning can be a huge help in relieving halitosis.
While brushing the tongue with your toothbrush is helpful, using a tongue scraper can be about 30 per cent more effective in removing compounds that cause bad breath and can reduce detectable levels of sulphur compounds by 50 to
75 per cent.
Preliminary research has shown that the combination of antibacterial mouthwash followed by lozenges containing the probiotic Streptococcus salivarius may help to reduce bad breath for up to two weeks.
Streptococcus salivarius is derived from the bacteria population found in healthy human mouths. It, and other probiotics, (particularly from the Lactobacillus family) may work to eliminate halitosis by competing with odour-causing bacteria, reducing inflammation, producing antimicrobial substances and/or otherwise altering the mouth environment in beneficial ways.
In a second study using the probiotic Lactobacillus salivarius in a lozenge, bad breath scores decreased and gum health markers increased after four weeks of daily use.
If bad breath has been causing you to cover up, don’t despair. Try some of these natural interventions, and if the condition persists, talk to your health care practitioner (including your dentist) about underlying health issues that may need to be explored.
If you experience any of the following, it is wise to seek help from a health care practitioner:
- chronic or severe halitosis
- breathing problems
- pain in the throat, stomach or sinuses
- bleeding or sore gums or teeth
- halitosis in children
- halitosis that occurs suddenly, without apparent cause and especially if associated with other new symptoms
- halitosis occurring with new medications
- halitosis with chronic dry mouth
In the plant world there is a fantastic selection of effective antimicrobial compounds. Many of these may help to prevent and treat bad breath by inhibiting odour-causing bacteria. Here are a few to consider.
Compounds in the essential oil of this fresh-smelling plant are active against many bacteria found in the mouth. In one study a chewing gum containing eucalyptus extract was shown to significantly reduce detectable sulphur compounds and tongue coating that can contribute to halitosis. Look for commercial products such as mouth rinses with eucalyptus oil added to them to use as part of your daily routine. Remember, eucalyptus oil can be toxic so stick with store-bought products.
The compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), found in green tea, has been shown to inhibit the growth of certain oral bacteria. Inhibition of these bacteria results in a reduction of the sulphur compounds they release; and therefore, could help to decrease halitosis. Green tea has been associated with many other health benefits, so even if it is not the perfect fix for bad breath, a couple of cups a day can’t hurt.
Tea tree oil
Well known for its ability to battle yeast, fungus, bacteria and other germs, tea tree oil has found its way into a number of dental care products, and with good reason. A mixture of diluted tea tree oil with peppermint and lemon has been shown to help reduce halitosis and levels of sulphur compounds in the mouth.
Tea tree oil may also help to improve gum health and inhibit bacteria that cause gum disease and tooth decay. Tea tree has become a popular addition to natural dental care products, many of which can be found at your local health food store.
Long used as a traditional remedy to sweeten the breath as well as ease dental pain, cloves have a natural antibacterial effect. In laboratory tests clove oil has been found to be effective against several oral bacteria. This could make clove a helpful part of your arsenal against bad breath, as well as promoting gum and tooth health.