Bad breath is bad for your social calendar – and for your health

Bad breath is not just a social problem, it’s bad for your overall health. And research shows that about 50 per cent of the population suffers from bad breath.

The recent lockdowns, with their decreased socialisation and remote working arrangements, would have encouraged many to eat more sugary foods, postpone dental appointments and perhaps neglect regular dental routines.

Dr Heath Fraser, an experienced dental surgeon, has treated thousands of patients and helped many tackle bad breath.

He says that bad breath – or halitosis – causes more than just embarrassment. “It has been linked to depression and an overall poorer quality of life,” he says.

“Unfortunately, bad breath can be caused by many factors, some obvious to the naked eye and others hidden in the oral cavity. Often, several factors will combine to a point where the odour becomes noticeable to others, leading to what is known as chronic halitosis, however the presence of bacteria is nearly always the cause.

“Fortunately, most of the causes of bad breath can be easily treated through simple lifestyle changes and a shift in dental routine.”

He warns that anyone finding it hard to get rid of bad breath should visit a trusted oral hygiene professional to see if gum disease or other factors are exacerbating the issue.

Dr Fraser shares the common causes of bad breath and how to avoid the problem.

1. The cause: poor dental hygiene. Dr Fraser says poor dental hygiene, such as failing to brush regularly, not flossing or tongue cleaning and using mouthwash containing alcohol, is one of the most common causes of bad breath. In fact, only half of Australian adults brush their teeth twice a day, he says. “Even if you do follow a healthy dental care routine at home, improper brushing or flossing technique can still leave dental plaque and food particles decaying inside your mouth that will continue to feed bacteria, all contributing to bad breath.”

Read: What happens to your teeth as you age

The solution: Dr Fraser recommends using products such as alcohol-free mouthwashes, toothpastes, probiotics or tongue scrapers that are specifically designed to treat bad breath rather than simply masking it temporarily.

2. The cause: poor dental work. Existing fillings, crowns, bridges, implants and dentures as well as any other restorative treatments to repair broken teeth and fill gaps can produce areas in the mouth that harbour odour-emitting bacteria. Unfortunately, if these treatments are not performed to the highest standard, they can quickly trap food and plaque in difficult-to-reach places, causing bacteria build-up. These areas can often be impossible to clean at home and may need rectification from an oral health professional.

The solution: Dr Fraser recommends visiting a trusted professional for a detailed examination to assess and remedy any prior dental work as soon as you have any concerns.

3. The cause: gum-related infections. Bacteria invading the gums, resulting in gingivitis and periodontitis, are the predominant causes of bad breath and tooth loss in the world. A third of adults have untreated and potentially painful tooth decay.

The solution: Dr Fraser recommends Aussies seek regular dental check-ups at least twice yearly to address any gum-related concerns or infections and prevent serious conditions. He says: “Those who wait longer than six months to have their gums professionally assessed and, if necessary, treated, may be at risk of contracting periodontitis, a serious gum infection. If left untreated, not only will an individual develop bad breath, but they will also notice bleeding, food build-up, tender gums, sensitive teeth and even tooth loss.”

4. The cause: respiratory tract infections. Bad breath doesn’t always originate from the teeth or gums. Throat infections, sinus infections and lung infections can fuel bacterial growth and mucus production, which in turn can result in bad breath.

Read: Push for Medicare-style dental scheme for older Australians

The solution: Dr Fraser recommends Aussies rinse their sinuses with warm water, alongside their usual dental hygiene routine, to clear out excess mucus. Clearing of the sinuses should also be done following any additional treatment prescribed by their doctor.

5. The cause: food choices. Dr Fraser says food such as garlic, onion and dairy products, and vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli and cabbage, can cause bad breath due to the fact that they break down into sulphur in the digestive system. While this can often be remedied by thoroughly brushing one’s teeth, foods such as onions and garlic can often linger on the breath.

The solution: Dr Fraser says: “Once garlic reaches the stomach, it absorbs into the bloodstream before returning to our lungs, giving off a smell. Studies have shown that raw apple, raw lettuce and mint leaves can significantly decrease garlic-induced bad breath.” Otherwise, Dr Fraser recommends buying a good mouthwash or chewing on some sugar-free gum until you’re able to brush your teeth.

6. The cause: smoking and overconsumption of alcohol. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can also have a considerable impact on breath, as well as overall health. Tobacco products in particular almost guarantee bad breath as well as an array of other oral health problems. Cigarette smoke lingers in the throat and mouth, even after a cigarette is finished, leaving an unpleasant smell. The chemicals in the cigarette smoke mix with a person’s saliva, leading to bad breath while also decreasing saliva’s protective properties, and increasing the risk of cancer.

The solution: Dr Fraser recommends cutting back or quitting, where possible, to maintain oral and personal wellbeing. If you’re unable to quit on your own, speak to your dentist or GP for further guidance and support.

Read: Myths and facts about dental fillings

7. The problem: chronic illnesses. The mouth is the main gateway into the body for disease-causing bacteria. Dr Fraser says research is continually finding that oral health has a significant impact on the overall body. Poor oral hygiene has been linked to a number of serious conditions, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, kidney disease, lung cancer, cystic fibrosis and liver disease. These conditions are known to cause distinct odours in the breath, often as a result of an increased susceptibility to gum disease.

The solution: Dr Fraser recommends Aussies seek professional advice from a doctor, particularly if they have a family history of disease, to address any health concerns or predispositions. “Those who already have a diagnosis should visit a trusted dentist to discuss treatment plans to help maintain good oral health.”

8. The cause: hunger. Skipping meals or even generally being hungry has the potential to affect breath. Dr Fraser says: “Chewing food increases saliva production in the mouth and the longer we go without it, the slower our saliva production becomes, leaving more room for bacterial growth and causing bad breath. Saliva production also slows down overnight, which is what usually leads to morning breath.”

The solution: Dr Fraser says regular meals and adequate hydration will usually do the trick. Otherwise chewing sugar-free gum is an easy yet effective solution.

Dr Heath Fraser, an experienced cosmetic dentist and dental surgeon, is founder of AirSmile, an online comparison platform that compares dentists across the country.

Have you been to your dentist in the past year? Is it something you’re diligent about or do you push it to the bottom of your to-do list? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

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