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Halitosis (bad breath)

5-minute read

Key points

  • Halitosis is the medical name for bad breath.
  • Bad breath is normal when you wake up, and generally disappears after you clean your teeth.
  • If bad breath continues throughout the day, it may be a sign of a dental or other health condition.
  • If bad breath is a problem, see your dentist who can check your mouth for common causes of halitosis, advise you about oral hygiene, and if necessary, refer you to your doctor.

What is halitosis?

Halitosis is the medical name for bad breath. It’s normal to have bad breath when you first wake up. It usually 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?

Bacteria in your body create substances with an unpleasant smell, leading to halitosis. Having an infection in your mouth, gum disease or tooth decay increase the amount of bacteria present and are common causes of halitosis.

Having a dry mouth means that the bacteria are washed away less often, and the unpleasant smelling substances that they create build up in your mouth. This is why some people have bad breath when they wake up in the morning, as their mouth produces less saliva overnight, and allowing bacteria to grow and the smell to worsen. A dry mouth can be caused by medical conditions such as diabetes, certain medications, as well as being a natural part of aging.

Poor dental hygiene can also cause halitosis as food is left in the mouth is turned into foul smelling substances by bacteria. If you wear dentures, bacteria on your dentures can also cause halitosis if you don’t clean them regularly.

Although it is less common, halitosis can sometimes be caused by medical conditions outside of your mouth. Sinus infections, throat infections and lung diseases can all cause halitosis.

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

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

When should I see my dentist?

See your dentist if you are experiencing halitosis that doesn’t go away after a few hours. Your dentist will check your mouth for common causes of halitosis, such as infections and gum disease. They will also be able to advise you about oral hygiene, including proper care of your dentures if you use them. If your dentist thinks that your halitosis is caused by a medical condition not in your mouth, they may recommend that you speak to your doctor.

How is halitosis diagnosed?

Halitosis can be diagnosed by your dentist smelling an unpleasant smell in your mouth, breath or saliva.

Your dentist or doctor may also ask you about any symptoms you have, such as a dry mouth, pain in your mouth or a runny nose. This will help them to identify the cause of your halitosis so that they can treat it.

How can I treat halitosis?

You can treat halitosis in different ways depending on what is causing it. If bacteria in your mouth are the cause, your dentist will examine your mouth for pockets of trapped food or infections. They may recommend dental treatments or treating any dental infections. They may also recommend professional cleaning of your teeth.

Your dentist can also give you advice about good oral hygiene, which can help prevent halitosis in the future. Brushing your teeth thoroughly and regularly can stop build-up of food and bacteria. Cleaning your tongue with a tongue scraper or the tongue cleaner on the back of your toothbrush does not treat halitosis, but may give you relief for around 30 minutes. Mouthwashes containing peppermint, zinc or chlorhexidine (an antiseptic) can also be useful in keeping your mouth free from bacteria and reducing halitosis.

If you have a dry mouth, drinking more water or using a saliva substitute can be helpful. Some medicines can cause you to have a dry mouth — speak to your doctor or pharmacist if you are concerned.

If your halitosis is caused by a medical condition not in your mouth, your doctor may recommend other treatments depending on the specific cause.

Can I prevent halitosis?

You can’t always avoid halitosis, but maintaining good oral hygiene can help to prevent it. It’s important to clean your teeth thoroughly, floss, drink plenty of water, and have regular visits to your dentist. If you wear dentures, you should make sure that they fit you well, you clean them regularly, and that you take them out before you go to sleep.

Complications of halitosis

Halitosis can affect the way you feel about your personal appearance or make you feel worried that other people find your breath unpleasant. This can occasionally lead to anxiety when you’re around other people, or an exaggerated focus on your breath. If you feel that halitosis is having an impact on your mental health or social wellbeing, speak to your doctor about your symptoms and feelings. They may recommend consulting with a mental health specialist such as a psychologist about your halitosis.

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: May 2022


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