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Do I Really Need to Use Mouthwash?

Mouthwash promises to prevent cavities, whiten your teeth, kill germs that cause plaque and gingivitis, prevent tartar buildup, calm down sensitive teeth and gums, and/or freshen your breath.

And for the most part, mouthwash does deliver on these promises. But – unless your dentist advises you to use a rinse - you don’t have to swish with mouthwash to have a healthy mouth.

In fact, if you do find that you are relying on mouthwash (or any breath-freshening product) consistently to try and beat back bad breath, it’s time to go to the dentist and have a checkup. Popping a mint before a meeting is one thing, going through a tin of Altoids daily indicates that you have a problem.

What Causes Bad Breath?

If you have a healthy mouth, chances are the occasional bouts of bad breath you might experience come from something you ate or drank. The aroma of some foods – garlic and onions, for example - can linger in your mouth. Coffee is also notorious for causing bad breath, as is alcohol (both tend to dehydrate the system, which always results in bad breath) And health issues such as indigestion and respiratory infections can also create unpleasant odors in the mouth.

Persistent bad breath usually involves oral bacteria. It’s estimated that about 25 percent of people worldwide have chronically foul breath. Gas-emitting bacteria on the tongue and below the gum line cause constant bad breath, as can tooth decay and gum infections

There are millions of bacteria living in every person’s mouth. Some are good, helping to maintain the health of your mouth. Other types of bacteria cause tooth decay and gum disease which result in foul breath (among other problems).

Maintaining good oral hygiene is one of the best ways to reduce the levels of harmful oral bacteria. That requires brushing twice daily, flossing once a day, and seeing your dentist regularly for exams and professional cleanings.

A checkup may reveal an issue that many of us never think about when we’re trying to figure out what is causing our breath to smell bad. An old filling or dental bonding work that is starting to fail can cause odors. You may have a dental abscess or tooth decay that you can’t yet see or feel. Or you may have a medical issue that isn’t located in your mouth, for example sinus infections can cause bad breath. Your dentist can help pinpoint the cause and work with you to find the best way to manage it.

Cosmetic and Therapeutic Mouthwashes

There are two basic kinds of mouthwashes, the kind that just temporarily freshens your breath (cosmetic) and the kind that addresses oral health problems (therapeutic). In general, products marketed as “mouthwashes” are cosmetic and “rinses” tend to be therapeutic, but this isn’t always the case.

Rinsing your mouth with a liquid is a good way to free food debris from between your teeth and your dental nooks and crannies. You can get the same benefits from a rinse with plain water, but mouthwash will likely at least have a refreshing taste. But remember that flossing properly will always be more effective than rinsing your mouth.

Therapeutic mouthwashes include those with ingredients that are intended to kill bacteria. Your dentist may advise you to use these if you have an oral infection or if you’ve just had dental work such as a tooth extraction.

You may want to speak to your dentist before using an alcohol-based antibacterial rinse. Some of these actually dry out your mouth, which can result in cavities and decay. Our mouths depend on a good flow of saliva to control bacteria and plaque build-up along with flushing away food debris. Your dentist may advise you to skip the high alcohol mouthwashes, or to dilute with water before use.

Therapeutic rinses with xylitol help to treat dry mouth symptoms and reduce bacteria growth. Some rinses can be used to reduce plaque and inflammation of the gums. If you want to target these issues with a rinse as part of your dental hygiene ritual, the best way to find a good product is by asking your dental hygienist or dentist. And if you have severe dry mouth, ask about a rinse that acts as a saliva substitute. Your dentist may have samples of products that you can try before you buy.

Other mouthwashes contain traditionally-used medicinal herbs and other ingredients. You can do your own research to determine whether you feel these would work for you, and/or speak with a trusted healthcare provider to get their opinion. While some health professionals aren’t comfortable with alternative medicines, others see value in them. Oil pulling, as an example, is a mouth rinse process that some dentists think can be useful in maintaining oral health and addressing minor infections.

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