Garlic and onions are two of my favorite foods — I have been known to eat roasted garlic cloves like candy — so it’s no surprise that I often find myself surreptitiously smelling my breath and wincing. Studies on the prevalence of bad breath are hard to come by, but research has estimated that up to half of all Americans have been concerned by the smell of their breath over the course of their lives. (The other half clearly lack self-awareness.)
The bad news is that smelly breath can have many causes, some more serious than others. The good news is that there are a handful of ways to address it, depending on the underlying cause. I spoke to two restorative dentists who have studied bad breath; an ear, nose and throat doctor; and a periodontist to get their suggestions.
Determine if your breath is that bad.
One key problem with bad breath is that you can’t always tell when you have it, even though everyone around you probably can.
A popular and useful litmus test is to cup your hands over your nose and mouth, exhale and then inhale, said Dr. Mark Wolff, a restorative dentist at Penn Dental Medicine. Another method is to lick (yes, lick) the back of your hand a few times, wait a minute for the water to evaporate so that the odor molecules concentrate, then give the back of your hand a good sniff. If what you smell makes you want to keel over, you may want to do something about your breath, Dr. Wolff said.
That said, we are not always the best judges of our mouth odors, said Dr. Antonio Moretti, a periodontist at the University of North Carolina Adams School of Dentistry. Sometimes people think they have bad breath when they don’t, so he suggested asking a brave friend or loved one to do a breath check for you instead.
Consider what you eat.
Onions and garlic are common bad breath culprits because of their strong aromas — but other foods can lead to stinky breath, too. For instance, foods and drinks that can cause gastrointestinal reflux, such as alcohol, coffee, tomatoes, citrus fruits and onions, can incite bad breath because they cause you to burp up or even regurgitate small amounts of food, said Dr. Landon Duyka, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Northwestern Medicine.
Get rid of smelly mouth bacteria.
Bacteria in the mouth are another common cause of bad breath. These bacteria release what are called volatile sulfur compounds, which “smell like rotten eggs, smelly toes,” Dr. Wolff said. Brushing your teeth twice a day and flossing once a day can help eliminate these germs as well as the food particles that might be stuck in and around your teeth.
Bacteria can also thrive if you have dry mouth — a condition caused by dehydration, diseases such as Sjogren’s syndrome and diabetes, and as a medication side effect. Saliva helps to kill bacteria as well as to break down food particles….