What Causes Bad Breath, and How Can I Fix It?

Q: I’ve got bad breath. There, I said it. I’m sick and tired of popping breath strips like they’re candy, but it seems to be all I can do to keep my breath fresh throughout the day. Got any tips on how to freshen my chompers from within?

A: Well, yes and no. There are things you can do to freshen your breath, but they are not as simple as you may think, unfortunately. First, let me state that in rare cases bad breath can be a sign of a serious illness so when in doubt, be sure to see your doctor.

If you’ve just got plain ol’ bad breath, (which, if you’re in the dating scene, can be a serious illness in itself), then there usually is an underlying reason why.

According to Dr. Daniel Robbin, a dentist in Miami, bad breath is generally caused by a buildup of bacteria in your mouth. That buildup can occur as a result of a myriad of things. First and most obviously (well, not so obviously to my 11th-grade English teacher), when you don’t brush or floss regularly, bacteria can easily build up due to remnants of food left in your mouth. That’s why you should be brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day. “Even if you don’t floss every day, you should at least rinse your mouth out with water after every meal,” says Robbin. “This alone can be your single best defense against bacteria buildup.”

Also, if you’ve got an underlying dental condition, such as a periodontal infection (which, surprisingly, has nothing to do with dinosaurs) or gingivitis, you may be predisposed to higher levels of oral bacteria. Another little known cause of bad breath? Enlarged tonsils that are so big that — you guessed it — they collect bacteria.

So the way to combat the smell emanating from your mouth is quite simple in theory. Keep yourself and your mouth as healthy as possible. “If you’re always clearing your mouth of bacteria, you won’t have any problems with your breath,” Robbin says. “That means brushing and flossing regularly, regular dental checkups, getting any periodontal infection cleared up if need be, and drinking lots of water.”

According to Robbin, another healthy option is to chew sugar-free gum. He often recommends this to his elderly patients who take a lot of medication. Taking a lot of pills can cause a condition known as xerostomia, better known as dry mouth. “When you have dry mouth, the pH in your mouth is no longer balanced, causing bacteria levels to rise,” Robbin says. “Sugar-free gum actually stimulates saliva flow, which in turn prevents dry mouth, bacteria buildup, cavities, and the unnecessary loss of teeth.”

Your tongue is also a prime breeding ground for bacteria because of all its nooks and crannies (much like an English muffin, you might say). It’s for this reason that many dentists recommend brushing your tongue gently after you brush your teeth. As a matter of fact, Robbin recommends his patients purchase a “tongue scraper.” Try it — you’ll never believe what’s hiding in your tongue!

The bottom line? While some people claim that there are a number of things you can eat or drink (parsley, green tea) that will help with your bad breath, the best thing you can do is to look at the root of the issue to permanently resolve it.

Good luck, and remember, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.