So, what causes bad breath? The simple answer is that there is no single cause, although there are a number of root causes ranging from diet to hygiene to general health. Before we go further, it would be a good idea to define what bad breath means, at least for the purposes of this book.
Definition of Bad Breath Bad breath, often called halitosis, is simple enough to define: it’s a condition where a person generates an unpleasant odor whenever they exhale. If someone breathes out and it smells bad, they have bad breath. It’s that simple. Most of the time it comes from the mouth, but it has been known to come from the nose as well, though this is significantly less common. For our purposes we can consider the source to be the mouth unless otherwise specified and not go too far wrong. That’s a simplification, but since Now that we know what it is, we can take a look at how it’s produced. In the broadest and most general terms, most bad breath can be considered the result of bacterial action in the mouth. That’s why so many mouthwashes advertise that they reduce bad breath by killing bacteria. Your mouth is full of bacteria, most of which live by breaking down various proteins found in the mouth. Unfortunately, many of these proteins break down into foul-smelling constituents, which are carried out of the mouth by your breath. One interesting fact about these bacteria is that they tend to flourish in a relatively warm dry environment. This means that as a rule, the dryer your mouth is, the worse your breath.
Causes – Dehydration
So everything that contributes to a dryer mouth also increases the chance of bad breath. So-called “morning breath” is a perfect example of this. Most people sleep with their mouth at least a little bit open, which reduces the amount of saliva through evaporation. As the mouth dries out, bacterial colonies multiply, resulting in not only a bad taste in your mouth, but the breath to match. It’s the perfect example of why a dry mouth is to be avoided. Drinking and smoking are bad ideas too. Both of them dry your mouth out, and provide a great environment for bacteria to thrive. An unfortunate side effect of this is that when you do use one of those mouthwashes that kill bacteria it’s important to check whether it also contains alcohol. If it does it might not be such a good idea for long-term management of bad breath. The problem is that alcohol is a desiccant, which is to say it acts as a drying agent. Alcohol evaporates very quickly, carrying moisture away with it. What this means is that while a mouthwash may kill most of the bacteria in your mouth, it then provides a perfect environment for the bacteria to grow back. It works very well if you’re selling mouthwash, but when it comes to stopping bad breath its effects are temporary at best.
There are a number of other causes for a dry mouth, and any one of them can lead to bad breath. This is something that’s going to be a recurring theme throughout the book because dry mouth is almost as much a characteristic of bad breath as the odor itself. Any time someone has bad breath, even when it’s not the result of oral bacteria, the addition of a dry mouth tends
to increase both the frequency and the intensity of bad breath. It’s not to say that keeping your mouth hydrated means you won’t have bad breath, but it won’t hurt and will often lessen the effects of existing cases of bad breath.
Now that we’ve had a look at the basics of dry mouth we can look a little deeper into its causes. One thing to remember is that there are two main contributing factors to a dry mouth. The first is the local hydration level of the mouth itself, the second is overall hydration, and how much moisture do you have in your body to start with. Under normal circumstances there’s a balance between the loss and production of saliva, which keeps the mouth fairly well hydrated. Things like alcohol foster dry mouth by increasing the loss of saliva through evaporation, while other factors, such as some drugs work by reducing saliva production. These are both local hydration effects, and as such are associated with the mouth itself. Overall hydration levels affect the mouth as well, but in a slightly different way. What happens is simple enough, when the body doesn’t have enough water it prioritizes based on need and saliva production is pretty
low priority. As moisture levels drop, priorities go to maintaining blood volume rather than saliva production. Unless you’re eating you don’t need huge amounts of saliva in your mouth and your body knows this, so it’s one of the first things to shut down when you dehydrate.
Coffee, tea and soft drinks are all very popular, but if you suffer from bad breath they’re not something you should be indulging too frequently. There are a couple of problems
with these drinks. First off, most of them contain caffeine which is a diuretic and that’s the last thing you need if you want to keep hydrated. Secondly, they often contain lots of sugar, which provides more food for bacteria. There’s also the fact that some of these beverages, tea is an excellent example; that acts as a desiccant in the mouth. Please note, this is before considering whether the beverage itself contributes to bad breath. Whenever you get a new prescription, it’s important to take a look at the side effects of the drug. Many drugs list dry mouth as one of the side effects and whenever you see that on the list you should remember that this drug could also contribute to bad breath.