Family Health
bad breath|dental care|gum disease|mouth health|oral hygiene


Last Updated June 2023 | This article was created by editorial staff and reviewed by Deepak S. Patel, MD, FAAFP, FACSM

What is halitosis?

Halitosis is the term for bad breath. Bad breath can have many causes and could be a sign of an underlying health problem.

Symptoms of halitosis

Many people wake up with smelly breath, often called morning breath. But you may also have bad breath on and off throughout the day and not even know it. Here are some symptoms you may have that are associated with bad breath:

  • Dry mouth
  • Plaque around your teeth near the gumline
  • A white coating on your tongue
  • Postnasal drip of the feeling of sinuses draining down your throat
  • A bad taste in your mouth, especially if it has a metallic taste

What causes halitosis?

Most bad breath (also called halitosis) comes from something in your mouth. Food sticks between your teeth, around the gums and on your tongue. If you don’t brush and floss your teeth every day, this food can rot. The rotten bits of food cause a bad smell in your mouth. Rotten food also helps bacteria grow in your mouth. These bacteria can cause gum disease (also called gingivitis). Gingivitis also causes bad breath.

The things you eat and drink can also affect your breath. Common examples of foods and beverages that may cause bad breath include onions, garlic, cheese, pastrami, certain spices, orange juice and soda. Once these foods are digested, their oils are absorbed into your bloodstream and carried into the lungs. The odor is given off in your breath until all the food is out of your body.

How is halitosis diagnosed?

If you believe you may have halitosis, you should ask your doctor. They may be able to diagnose you based on odor alone. They may also ask you some lifestyle questions about how often you brush your teeth or if you floss your teeth. Your doctor may also ask about the medicines you are taking. If your doctor does not believe your bad breath is related to an underlying dental condition, they may refer you to a dentist for evaluation.

Can halitosis be prevented or avoided?

There are many things you can do on your own to prevent bad breath. These include:

  • Brushing your teeth at least 2 times every day, using a fluoride toothpaste. Be sure to brush along the gumline, as well as all tooth surfaces. Each time you brush your teeth, use your toothbrush to clean the surface of your tongue.
  • Flossing your teeth at least once a day to remove food from between your teeth.
  • Eating more fruits and vegetables every day. Eat less meat.
  • Avoiding foods that cause you to have bad breath. Also try to avoid alcoholic beverages, which often cause bad breath.
  • Avoiding using tobacco products. Any kind of tobacco can cause halitosis.

Sometimes a dry mouth has an unpleasant smell. If your mouth is dry, you can suck on sugar-free mints, chew sugar-free gum or sip more water. Most mouthwashes do not have a long-lasting effect on bad breath. If you use a mouthwash, swish it around in your mouth for 30 seconds before spitting it out.

If you wear removable dentures, take them out at night. Brush the dentures and soak them overnight in a disinfecting solution. Removable braces and retainers should also be cleaned. Follow the directions of your dentist.

You should see your dentist twice a year to have your teeth cleaned.

Halitosis treatment

Halitosis treatment mostly includes the things listed above to prevent bad breath. But your doctor or dentist may also offer you a prescription mouthwash to help treat gum disease.

Living with halitosis

If you can’t get rid of bad breath on your own, see your family doctor to find out if a more serious problem is causing it. Bad breath may be a sign of a health problem. Sinus infections, chronic lung infections, liver or kidney diseases, and diabetes are some health conditions that may cause bad breath.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • What is causing my bad breath?
  • Do I need to change my toothpaste?
  • Could chewing tobacco cause bad breath?
  • How often should I see my dentist?
  • Is there a mouthwash that might help?
  • If I can’t get rid of my bad breath, what steps do we take to figure out what’s wrong?
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