Is bad breath coming between you and your social life? Nutritionist Sarina Lococo explores the many causes of this common condition

Kiss bad breath goodbye

ad breath, medically called halitosis, can result from poor oral hygiene habits or may be a sign of other health problems. It is usually caused by the smelly gases released by bacteria that coat your teeth and gums. Bad breath can be made worse by the types of foods you eat or other unhealthy lifestyle habits. Supermarket shelves are overflowing with mouthwashes, mints, and other products claiming to help combat bad breath. According to dental and oral health experts these products help control bad breath only for a temporary period. Bad breath is a common problem and there are many causes. In many cases, you can improve bad breath with proper oral hygiene. If you are concerned about bad breath it is best to see a dentist who can help identify the cause and, if it’s due to an oral condition help to treat it. Here are some of the causes and tips to help improve or prevent bad breath.


The breakdown of food in and around your teeth can cause unpleasant odours. Certain foods such as onion and garlic contain volatile oils that can cause bad breath for as long as 72 hours after you’ve eaten them. Once the food is digested and the pungent oils are absorbed into the bloodstream, they are transferred into the lungs where they can be expelled via your breath. Brushing or flossing your teeth or even mouthwashes will only mask the odour temporarily. The odour will not go away completely until the foods have passed through your body.

Dental hygiene

If you don’t brush and floss daily, food particles remain in your mouth and collect bacteria. These bacteria can emit smelly gases such as hydrogen sulphide and form plaque on your teeth, which can cause tooth decay or gum disease such as gingivitis. Eventually this can lead to more serious conditions such as periodontitis and worsen your bad breath. Dentists recommend brushing teeth twice daily with a fluoride toothpaste and flossing teeth at least once a day. They also recommend regular check-ups to help prevent more
serious conditions.

Other dental causes of bad breath include poorly fitting dental appliances and yeast infections of the mouth.

Dry mouth (xerostomia)

Bad breath can also be caused by dry mouth. Saliva helps cleanse and moisten your mouth. Dry mouth occurs naturally during sleep and is what usually causes ‘morning breath’. Some medications, smoking and continuous mouth breathing can cause dry mouth. There may also be a problem with salivary gland function. Dentists can prescribe artificial saliva or suggest using sugarless candy or gum to increase saliva flow. Increasing fluid intake may also help.


Chronic reflux of the stomach known as gastroesophageal reflux disease or GORD can cause bad breath as can lung infections such as pneumonia and bronchitis. Kidney failure can cause a ‘urine-like’ odour and liver disease may cause a ‘fishy’ odour. People with uncontrolled diabetes can have fruity breaths. Other medical conditions that can cause bad breath include infections of the throat and nose such as sinusitis. You may need to see your doctor or another medical specialist to treat such conditions.


Severe dieting may produce unpleasant ‘fruity’ breath from ketoacidosis, the breakdown of chemicals known as ketones. Ketones are formed from the metabolism of fats during dieting. During severe dieting excessive ketones may be formed which can lead to bad breath as well as other symptoms such as headaches and general malaise.

Tobacco products

Smoking dries out your mouth and may cause unpleasant mouth odours. Smokers are also more likely to suffer periodontal, lung and mouth or throat diseases which can be additional sources of
bad breath.


Practise good oral hygiene. Brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste to remove food debris and plaque. Brush your teeth after you eat (keep a toothbrush at work or school to brush after lunch). Don't forget to brush your tongue, too. Replace your toothbrush every 2 to 3 months. Use floss or an interdental cleaner to remove food particles and plaque between your teeth once a day. Dentures should be removed at night and cleaned thoroughly before being placed in your mouth the next morning.

See your dentist regularly – at least twice a year. Your dentist will conduct an oral examination and professional teeth cleaning and will be able detect and treat periodontal disease, dry mouth, or other problems that may be the cause of bad mouth odour.

Check medical conditions and medications with your doctor. If you suspect a medical condition or your medication is the reason for your bad breath see your doctor for the best treatment or management plan.

Stop smoking/chewing tobacco-based products. Ask your dentist or doctor for tips on kicking the habit.

Drink lots of water. This will keep your mouth moist. Chewing sugarless gum or sucking on sugarless candy also stimulates the production of saliva, which helps wash away food particles and bacteria. Avoid drinking too much coffee and tea as they can dehydrate you and cause mouth odours.

Keep a log of the foods you eat. If you think the foods that you eat may be causing your bad breath, record what you eat so that you can determine which foods may be contributing to the problem. Bring the log to your dentist to review. Similarly, make a list of the medications
you take.