Bad Breath - What is it, What causes it, and how to treat bad breath

Written By Sharon Boyd, RDH, BS.       |       Reviewed by Lara T. Coseo, DDS

 1 Definition Of Halitosis
 2 Causes Of Halitosis
 3 Signs And Symptoms of Halitosis
 4 Progression of Halitosis
 5 Dangers And Health Risks from Halitosis
 6 Steps To Prevent Bad Breath/Halitosis
 7 Treatments for Halitosis
 8 Your Questions About Bad Breath Answered
 9 References

Definition Of Halitosis

Bad Breath (Halitosis) - What is halitosis, what causes halitosis and how to treat halitosis
Bad breath - clinically known as halitosis - is an unpleasant odor of the breath. Most adults experience this occasionally and it can have a significant impact on a person's social and professional life. For the majority of people, the most frequent cause of breath odor is related to poor conditions in the mouth. There are some cases of bad breath that originate in the stomach and digestive system, but these are rare. Some oral bacteria produce sulfur compounds as waste, and it is primarily this bacterial waste that causes bad breath odor.
Bad breath may be evident first thing in the morning or more persistent and last throughout the day. It is thought that as many as 50% of adults may be affected by bad breath. Most bad breath bacteria originate on the tongue. 

Causes of Halitosis

What causes halitosis? Bad breath can have numerous causes:
  • Unbalanced oral flora
  • Gum disease
  • Medications [1.]
  • Food such as garlic and dairy
  • Dry mouth
  • Tobacco use
  • Allergies
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Gum disease

Bad breath is typically due to poor oral hygiene, but if halitosis persists then it may be due to other factors. Drainage in the back of the throat from allergies or sinus infections can cause bad breath. If active gum disease is present, halitosis will most likely persist until the condition has been reversed.

Signs And Symptoms of Halitosis

Sometimes bad breath can be difficult to notice yourself. You may need to ask a friend or family member to help with your self-diagnosis.

The following signs and symptoms may be associated with bad breath:

  • Black or white hairy tongue
  • Thrush
  • Visible tartar buildup on the teeth
  • Swollen, red or bleeding gums
  • Filmy buildup on the tongue
  • Accompanying systemic infection
  • Swollen lymph nodes

Some other symptoms you may notice during bout of bad breath are saliva that is thick or stringy; sores or split skin at the corners of the mouth; cracked lips; altered sense of taste; or increased plaque, tooth decay and gum disease.

Progression of Halitosis

A bad taste in the mouth may develop first. Then the odor may be more easily noticed by others than by yourself. By this point, social and professional embarrassment may occur.


Bad breath can progress from a temporary problem to a chronic condition that is difficult to reverse. Many people believe they can simply treat the condition topically with the use of mints or gums, but treating only the symptoms will allow the underlying condition to progress until the cause is identified.

If bad breath is due to the development of gum disease, not treating the condition properly can result in severe bone destruction and the loss of teeth. 

Dangers And Health Risks from Halitosis

Halitosis is typically associated with periodontal disease infections. In some cases it may be due to other underlying conditions. If gum disease is the cause of your halitosis, then it is important to know that gum disease is linked with numerous health conditions that should not be ignored.

Examples of diseases linked with periodontal infections include: cardiovascular disease, including heart attack, stroke and elevated blood pressure; diabetes; obesity; erectile dysfunction; and premature labor Treatment for these conditions should be correlated with treatments for gum disease, as the severity of each can affect the response of the other conditions.

Steps To Prevent Bad Breath/Halitosis

Halitosis is usually treated initially and then preventive measures are taken to prevent recurrent bad breath.

Common practices to prevent bad breath are:

Brush Your Tongue, Inside Of The Lips And Cheeks Up to 90% of bacteria that cause bad breath may be on the surface of the tongue. Cleaning the tongue can reduce bad breath.[2.] 

Use A Tongue-Scraper These are useful for removing excess bacteria from the tongue.

Keep Gum Health In Check Existing gingivitis or periodontal disease can create malodor in the mouth. Keeping your mouth healthy and free of gum disease symptoms is the best way to avoid bad breath.

Give Up Smoking Tobacco use can cause bad breath, even if you can’t smell it, others around you can.

Don’t Cover It Up Alcoholic mouthwash can dry your mouth out, disrupting the natural flora of your mouth and making it more difficult to treat chronic halitosis. Breath mints only briefly hide some of the odor from halitosis, but do not correct the problem. Rather, sugar-filled mints used frequently will cause tooth decay.

Avoid Problem Foods Garlic, milk, cheese and other foods can increase bacteria levels in the mouth or be too odorous to begin with, making it difficult for people with bad breath to eat them when in public.


Treatments for Halitosis

In most cases, the best options for treating bad breath are the same that can prevent it. Make sure you're taking better care of your mouth in general and usually this will prevent those bacteria from producing those foul odors.

Gum and mints are other options as well, but generally mask breath instead of treating the actual cause of it. If you do go that route, be sure to use sugar-free products, as ones with sugar will only feed that bacteria that you need to eliminate.

Most treatment for bad breath is through home treatments and remedies. Although, sometimes the following conventional treatments might be needed:

Deep Cleaning – This is necessary when large amounts of tartar and gum disease are present.

Prescription Medication – These are taken for allergies or dental abscesses to eliminate mucus or pus.

Home Remedies are used to get rid of bad breath typically include those that are used to keep your mouth clean. Removing bacteria that cause bad breath can help you treat bad breath and avoid bad breath. Efficient measures that treat halitosis include:

Proper Oral Hygiene - Using an electric toothbrush and flossing properly each day can remove bacteria that cause gum disease. Use a tongue scraper to treat halitosis that is due to oral bacteria.

Fight Gingivitis - See our special reports on treating gum disease and gingivitis to learn how to fix bad breath associated with those conditions.

Toothpaste And Mouth Wash - There are several oral products available that can help reduce halitosis. Choosing products that are alcohol-free are better for your mouth as they do not dry it out.   Remedies for halitosis do not have to be very complicated. Most of them come down to your ability to maintain a clean mouth that is free of dental diseases.

Your Questions About Bad Breath Answered

How do I know if I have bad breath? There is no concrete way to perform a halitosis test. Rather, a family member or close friend will usually tell you. It may be embarrassing to bring the topic up with your dentist, but they are there to help you if you fear you have a problem with bad breath.

Why do I have bad breath? Bad breath is typically due to inappropriate oral hygiene, or dental disease such as gingivitis, gum disease or severe decay.

What’s the quickest way to get rid of bad breath? In order to reduce bad breath you must eliminate the bacteria in your mouth, which are causing the malodor. Knowing how to control oral bacteria is how to control bad breath.

How do I get rid of morning breath? Cleanse your mouth thoroughly before bed and drink plenty of water. Be sure you take any medications for allergies or acid reflux. Upon waking, cleanse your mouth thoroughly or rinse with a bit of non-alcoholic mouthwash such as water mixed with a few drops of essential oils.

What’s the best mouthwash for bad breath? The best mouthwash for bad breath is one that does not contain alcohol or act to cover-up the halitosis, instead of treating it. Keeping oral flora in balance is important, so using natural products such as a few drops of essential oils in water can be beneficial.

What’s the best toothpaste for bad breath? The best toothpaste for bad breath is one that is used properly, with an efficient brushing method that removes all oral bacteria. Most over-the-counter toothpastes contain a mild mint flavor that provides a short duration of a fresh scent in the mouth. Adding a few drops of essential oils to your toothbrush can provide hours of relief to your bad breath.

Do I need to see a dentist about my bad breath? If you are experiencing bleeding gums, broken teeth, or sensitivity to sweet, hot or cold, you are most likely suffering from active decay or other disease that may need to be addressed by a dentist.

My bad breath seems to also be associated with a bad taste. Why is this? Areas in your mouth that have food pack between teeth, active gum disease, or dental abscesses may also taste bad. This is due to disease bacteria in the mouth.

Can’t I tell by myself if I have bad breath? Most people are unaware of scents or odors that they give off themselves. Other times, they simply become accustomed to it to the point where they no longer notice it, even if it is very obvious to others. Just because you can’t tell you have bad breath doesn’t mean that others don’t.  


  1. 1 Murata T, Fujiyama Y, Yamaga T, Miyazaki H.; Breath Malodor In An Asthmatic Patient Caused By Side-Effects Of Medication: A Case Report And Review Of The Literature.; Oral Dis. 2003 Sep;9(5):273-6. ↩
  2. 2Tornout, V., Dadamio, J., Coucke, W., Quirynen, M.; Tongue Coating: Related Factors; Clin Periodontology; 2013 Feb;40(2):180-5. ↩

Article Written by Sharon Boyd

Article Written By Sharon Boyd

Sharon has been a Registered Dental Hygienist since 2001. She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Human Relations and Business. In 2011, she began implementing her dental knowledge into freelance writing services that aided dentists, product designers, continuing education providers and web marketing firms for their online and distribution purposes. She has since bridged her services into the medical and cosmetic surgery fields.

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Article Reviewed by Dr. Lara Coseo 

Lara T. Coseo, DDS, is a 2004 graduate of Baylor College of Dentistry.  She has 13 years of experience practicing general dentistry.  She currently serves as a part-time faculty instructor at Texas A&M College of Dentistry and writes dental website content and blog material. Website / Linked In / Instagram






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