Bad breath: it’s something a lot of us don’t like to talk about (or think about). It can be embarrassing, but persistent bad breath is often not a personal hygiene problem—it’s a dental problem. And the fix is getting the root cause treated by your dentist.
What Causes Bad Breath?
Bad breath (also called halitosis.from the Latin word to breathe), is usually caused by bacteria or infection in your mouth or nasal cavity.
In many cases, it’s as simple as food particles getting stuck in teeth or dentures. This kind of bad breath is occasional and easily fixed with improvements to dental care–like brushing, flossing, mouth rinse and cleaning your dentures. But more persistent, long term halitosis can be a warning sign for a bigger dental or medical problem.
Gum disease, which is caused by buildup of plaque and bacteria, is one of the most common causes of halitosis. In this case, bad breath can be a warning sign of a bigger problem, and it’s important to see your dentist right away. Cavities and oral yeast infections can also cause problems.
The condition known as dry mouth can also cause bad breath. Dry mouth is a reduction in saliva production, and saliva plays an important role in cleaning your mouth. In the case of dry mouth, dead skin cells and food particles don’t get washed away naturally and can decompose and cause bad breath. Certain medications (including many antibiotics) you take for other conditions can also reduce saliva production and lead to bad breath–so be sure to give your dentist a complete list of your medications when you arrive for your appointment.
If you’ve had recent oral surgery (such as a tooth extraction) and notice bad breath, be sure to see your dentist right away. There may be a problem related to the healing of the site, and bad breath can be a sign of infection.
And finally, as most of us know, smoking and chewing tobacco also cause bad breath (in addition to staining your teeth and being bad for your overall health). Tobacco products are linked to gum disease and quite simply leave a bad taste in your mouth.
What Are Some Medical Causes Of Bad Breath?
Bad breath can also be caused by medical conditions beyond your mouth. Your dentist’s office is the best place to start, but if your dentist doesn’t find any of the usual dental causes, he may send you on to a physician. Because your nasal cavity is connected to the back of your mouth, your sinuses can play a huge role in causing bad breath. If you have a sinus infection, post-nasal drip or tonsil infection, all of these can lead to halitosis.
Respiratory infections, liver or kidney conditions, diabetes and chronic acid reflux. In all these cases, bad breath is an important warning sign. If your dentist is unable to identify a dental cause for bad breath, he’ll likely recommend you see your doctor for tests.
How Can I Treat Bad Breath?
For occasional bad breath, the fix is usually pretty simple. Brushing and flossing daily can help with bad breath because they remove food particles that can get stuck between teeth (have we mentioned how important daily flossing is for overall oral health?). An antibacterial mouth rinse can also help. Drinking lots of water is always a good idea (for both dental and overall good health). Water helps wash away food particles and keeps your mouth from drying out.
For more persistent, ongoing or worsening halitosis, you’ll need to get your dentist involved. Your dentist will check for signs of gum disease. If this turns out to be the cause, he can get started with a professional deep cleaning. In the early stages of gum disease, this may be all it takes.
But if gum disease is more advanced, your dentist has a number of surgical and non-surgical options. Scaling and root planing (using special tools under local anesthetic to get to plaque and tartar under the gum line) are a step beyond a deep cleaning and require local anesthetic but do not require surgery. For more severe cases, surgical treatments to lift back the gums to remove tartar may be necessary. Special dental antibiotics can be used in some cases to kill bacteria that cause gum disease (often in combination with other therapies like those mentioned above). Your dentist may also prescribe a special mouth rinse designed to kill bacteria. And sometimes the solution involves removing broken fillings, crowns or other dental work as these can cause a buildup of bacteria.
If you use tobacco products, your dentist can help you develop a plan to quit. Losing the bad breath will be only one of many huge benefits to leaving tobacco products behind.
What Should I Expect At My Dental Appointment
If you let your dentist know that bad breath is a problem, he’ll start by asking questions about the frequency of bad breath (whether it’s occasional or ongoing). He’ll also ask about your diet, medications, oral hygiene routine. Your dentist will smell your breath and may also scrape the back of your tongue to try to identify telltale bacteria. A thorough check for signs of gum disease, cavities and infection related to damaged fillings or crowns is also in the list. He’ll discuss an oral hygiene plan and let you know if further treatment is necessary. If a visit to your primary care doctor or an ear, nose and throat specialist is called for, your dentist will recommend setting up a visit.
Getting Out In Front Of Bad Breath
Bad breath can be a little embarrassing, but don’t let that stop you from seeing your dentist. He’s a professional experienced at treating halitosis and can help you find the best solution, restoring your confidence and getting you back on a path to great oral health. And remember, an ounce of prevention is usually worth a pound of cure: good dental hygiene and regular check ups can stop many of the causes of bad breath before they start.