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Halitosis (bad breath)

4-minute read

What is halitosis?

Halitosis is the medical name for bad breath.

Bad breath is normal when you wake up. It normally goes away after you have something to drink and clean your teeth. Bad breath that doesn’t go away can be the sign of another condition.

What causes halitosis?

The most common cause of bad breath is poor dental hygiene. This leads to tiny food particles being trapped in your teeth and mouth. When the natural bacteria in your mouth break down these tiny bits of food, a foul smelling gas is released and causes bad breath. Tooth decay and abscesses will also cause bad breath.

Certain medical conditions can also cause bad breath. These include dry mouth, an infection, conditions affecting the mouth, nose and throat, problems with your gut, diabetes, extreme diets and anorexia nervosa.

Other factors causing bad breath include eating strong-flavoured foods, such as garlic and onion, drinking alcohol, and smoking.

What symptoms relate to halitosis?

If you have poor dental hygiene you may develop gum disease. The early stage of gum disease is called gingivitis and can be reversed by regularly brushing your teeth. More serious gum disease is periodontitis, which can lead to abscesses, receding gums and tooth loss.

Chronic dry mouth can be caused by problems with your salivary glands, some diseases or medications. You might also notice a film over your tongue.

Infections in your mouth or tooth decay can lead to bad breath. You may have sores in your mouth or toothache.

Problems with your mouth, nose or throat might cause a sore throat or a postnasal drip.

When should I see my dentist?

Please see your dentist if halitosis doesn’t go away, the teeth are sensitive or discoloured, or you are concerned. If your dentist feels that the halitosis is not caused by a dental issue and may be caused by a medical issue, they may suggest you discuss this with your doctor.

How is halitosis diagnosed?

Your dentist will examine your mouth and talk to you about your bad breath. They will discuss possible medical causes and ask what medications you are taking.

They may do a test to compare the smell of the breath coming out of your nose with the breath coming out of your mouth. This will help them decide if the cause is something inside the mouth, from inside the nose or sinuses, or from deeper in the body.

How is halitosis treated?

Your dentist will examine your mouth and treat any dental disease. They may recommend professional cleaning of your teeth.

Halitosis is treated by:

  • regularly and carefully brushing your teeth
  • drinking plenty of water

Using a mouthwash can help for a while but it’s important to address the cause of the problem.

If the halitosis doesn’t go away with these measures, your dentist or doctor may recommend treatment of any underlying causes. For example, there is medication to get rid of the gases in your gut that may be causing your bad breath.

Can halitosis be prevented?

Good oral hygiene helps prevent bad breath. It’s important to clean your teeth after every meal (including your tongue), floss regularly and drink plenty of water.

You can also:

  • avoid foods containing onion and garlic
  • avoid sugary foods
  • make sure your dentures or other dental appliances are clean

Complications of halitosis

Halitosis that won’t go away even when you brush your teeth or drink plenty of water can affect quality of life.

Resources and support

Get advice on mouth care.

Find out more about looking after your teeth on the Australian Dental Association’s website.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2019

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