6 reasons why your breath smells bad—and how to overcome them

A molting Southern Elephant Seal opens its mouth.
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Waking up with a mouth that feels as dry as a desert or wondering why someone abruptly turns away from you at a close distance are probably signs that you’re locked into a battle with bad breath and it may not be solved simply by chewing a stick of gum.

One obvious source of bad breath stems from eating something particularly smelly, like garlic or onions, but here are some other reasons why you might be facing this issue on a regular basis.

Bacteria

It probably won’t surprise you that bacteria is a key player is causing bad breath, often the kind introduced by foods that build up on your teeth, tongue and gums.

The type of bacteria that causes ulcers by attacking your stomach’s lining, H. pylori (Helicobacter pylori), can also cause bad breath. Your doctor can check your body for this bacteria by having you do a simple test that involves you breathing into a balloon-like bag. If this is the cause of yours, antibiotics can help, as well as some other treatments that may be recommended by your doctor.

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A Lack Of Saliva

Saliva helps wash away bacteria in your mouth. So, if your mouth is dry, you won’t have enough saliva to keep the bacteria at bay.

If you breathe through your mouth while you sleep, you’re more likely to experience dry mouth and a lack of saliva, leading to bad breath. If you exercise a lot, you may also experience bad breath because of focused breathing that can dry up your mouth. This is yet another reason to stay hydrated while you’re working out!

You can also have a dearth of saliva from not eating enough in a day, as eating makes the body produce saliva.

Poor Dental Care

Sometimes the most obvious answer is the best one and bad breath can often come from poor dental hygiene. You may brush but perhaps not enough or not well enough. This can cause buildup of plaque and bacteria that causes dental issues like cavities and gum disease, as well as bad breath.

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To up your oral-care game, you’ll want to properly use the best fluoride mouthwash and toothpaste you can find, floss or use a water flosser, and clean your tongue well. If you’re doing all this and still having issues with cavities and bad breath, you might want to pay for an extra annual dental cleaning.

At a minimum, you should go to the dentist once a year and preferably twice a year. Pregnant women, those who smoke, drink heavily, have diabetes or genetically tend to have mouth issues might even want to add in a third trip.

Tonsil Stones

Small, smelly, whitish particles lodged in your tonsils can also cause a stink. Known as tonsil stones, these lovely things are buildup from food particles that then rot in your mouth.

While sometimes caused by poor oral hygiene, tonsil stones are more common in some people than others. If you have “craterous” tonsils, where food bacteria can easily get stuck, you might tend towards them more, for instance.

You can gently dislodge tonsil stones or flush them out with water or mouthwash. However, they can come back and need to be removed regularly. In extreme cases, an ear, nose and throat specialist might need to help or you might even consider getting your tonsils removed.

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A Low-Carb Diet

If you’re on a high-fat, low-carb diet, you may have heard of “keto breath,” an off-putting smell on your breath caused by the ketones created from the ketogenic diet. Usually the odor, described as being like nail polish remover, lessens after your first weeks on the diet. Drinking more water can also help flush the ketones from your body faster, according to Health.

Other Health Issues

Bad breath can also be an unfortunate side effect of health issues including post-nasal drip, strep throat, high blood sugar levels or Sjögren’s syndrome, a disorder that causes dryness of the mouth and eyes. Each of these requires a unique treatment but the effects can be lessened by the proper care.

Have you thought of any of these as a trigger for your bad breath?

About the Author

Anna Weaver

Anna Weaver is a writer and multimedia journalist born, raised, and living back in her home state of Hawaii. Her two young kids keep her on her toes and hooked on online shopping. Learn More.