Bad breath happens. And while the occasional bout of halitosis won’t kill your social life, chronic bad breath will make it very hard for people to get close to you.
Unlike vultures, rats and fruit flies; humans are hardwired to run away from the smell of decay. And unfortunately, the same chemicals produced by decomposition of flesh - cadaverine and putrescine – are also emitted by mouths suffering from oral health issues. Hydrogen sulfide, the smell associated with rotten eggs, is the most common of the volatile sulfur compounds found in human bad breath.
Each of these chemical compounds is produced as a waste product by most of the 500 or so species of bacteria that live in our mouths. At low levels, the odor of these waste particles can’t be detected by human noses. But when you have an oral health issue, the bacterial load increases to the point where its easy for anyone in your vicinity to get a whiff of your pungent breath.
Our brains associate the smell of these chemicals with big danger, so the natural response is to get as far away from that odor as possible. It’s an instinct honed over thousands of years: people who avoided contact with decayed flesh and rotten foods tended to live longer than those who did not.
Bad breath has been around for a long time. In the fourth century AD, Egyptians were making toothpaste, using a mixture of rock salt, mint, dried flowers and crushed pepper. The salt purified and cleaned the teeth, the pepper stimulated the gums, and the mint and flowers freshened the breath.
In China, a mix of ginseng, various mints, and salt was the preferred recipe. The Romans mixed salt, chalk, their own urine and crushed brick into a paste that apparently made their teeth bright and clean (urine’s bleaching and softening abilities were also widely utilized in laundering clothing until a century or so ago). Napoleon Bonaparte used a silver-plated toothbrush and expensive, opium-laced toothpaste to scrub his teeth.
That was then, and this is now. But our aversion to bad breath hasn’t changed. In a recent survey conducted by DentalPlans.com, 50% of those polled said bad breath was a dating deal breaker.
Good oral hygiene can help you avoid bad breath or address the issues that are causing it. Ask your dentist or hygienist to check your brushing technique to make sure you’re doing it right. Then brush at least twice a day. Flossing helps dislodge those particles between the teeth that lead to decay and potential infections. Gently brushing your tongue with a soft toothbrush or a tongue scraper tool can make a big difference in the improving the freshness of your breath as oral bacteria builds up on the tongue too. Take a long look at your tongue. If it has a white or yellow coating, that’s bacterial waste and you probably have 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.
Rinsing with a mouthwash can help to perk up your breath for a few hours, but it’s a short-term solution. Be aware that some antiseptic mouthwashes may result in dry mouth, which often leads to bad breath since salvia is responsible for flushing bacterial gunk from the mouth. Talk to your dentist to see which mouthwashes he or she recommends that you use. There are newer mouthwashes specifically developed to neutralize bacterial odors, rather than just covering them up with a blast of strong mint fragrance.
It’s estimated that about 25 percent of people worldwide have chronically foul breath. If you have persistent bad breath that regularly defeats mouthwashes and mints, and is seemingly unimpressed by toothpastes and brushing, you need to get professional help to cure your bad breath. It’s not going to magically go away by itself.
Your first step on the road to sweet, fresh breath is making an appointment with your dentist for a checkup and cleaning. During a routine cleaning, the hygienist uses a scaler (a small metal instrument) to scrape off tartar above and below the gum line. He or she may also use an ultrasonic vibrating device to shake loose plaque and tartar. The areas between your teeth will also be cleaned, and your teeth polished with a gently abrasive paste. Not only do your teeth look smooth and shiny, the now slippery surface makes it a little harder for stinky, bacteria-laden plaque to build up on your teeth.
A deep cleaning is similar to a routine cleaning, but includes cleaning the surfaces of your teeth’s roots. This is called root planning. The treatment removes plaque and tartar from the roots and smooths rough spots where bacteria love to hide and breed. During the treatment, and an antimicrobial medication may be placed below your gum line to kill bacteria. Root planning often takes an hour or two per session, with three or four sessions typically required. A local anesthetic or numbing gel will be applied before the treatment begins, for your comfort. Your teeth and gums will likely be sensitive and sore for a few days following treatment.
Dental insurance plans typically cover the full cost of checkups and cleanings. But if you don’t have insurance, and can’t afford to see your dentist and hygienist regularly, consider dental savings plans.Dental savings plans, also known as discount dental plans, are an affordable alternative to dental insurance. Plan members pay a low annual membership fee for access to an extensive network of participating dentists and dental specialists that provide discounts – typically 10%-60% - on dental care at the time of service. To learn more about affordable dental savings plans, check out our dental insurance vs. discount dental plans comparison guide.