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What Causes Bad Breath (And How to Fix It)

Persistent breath affects half the population, but could we actually be making it worse?

| November 23rd, 2011
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What Causes Bad Breath (And How to Fix It)

It would seem as though Americans take unpleasant breath pretty seriously—after all, we do spend an estimated two billion dollars a year buying products to mask that stank.

But the often ignored social repercussions of halitosis—the fancy term for bad breath—can be crippling. In one survey, 34 percent of respondents said that bad breath made them hesitant to even speak to other people (another 12.6 percent said they avoided others altogether). Try dating with that kind of pressure.

Even if you don’t have severe halitosis (the kind that you smell on someone sometimes before you even see them), what people may not realize is that half of the adult population suffers from persistent bad breath.

VIDEO: Why Do I Have Bad Breath?

Why do we get bad breath? And most importantly, what can we do to rid ourselves of it? You may be surprised to find that some of the usual go-to solutions may actually be making your breath worse.

What causes bad breath

Germs We may think smelly foods are often the culprit for bad breath, but in reality, germs that naturally exist in our mouth cause 90 to 95 percent of bad breath. When the germs mix with protein particles, it’s bad news.

“Germs plus protein equal bad breath,” says Susanne Cohen, D.D.S. “When those germs metabolize, they produce a foul smelling sulfur gas that smells kind of like rotten eggs.”

And ever wonder why we get morning breath? One reason is, “When we sleep, we produce less saliva than when we’re awake,” explains NYC-based dentist, Jennifer Jablow. “Saliva acts as a buffer to neutralize and wash away bacteria. With less of it, our mouth is dry and the acid level rises, leaving bacteria to produce foul smelling gases.”

MORE: Keep Bad Germs Out of Your Home

You can even blame those gases for your coffee breath, which doesn’t come from the coffee itself. “If you think about it, coffee smells delicious,” Dr. Cohen explains. “Think about those commercials where people wake up with a smile just from the smell of coffee brewing! It’s actually the sulfur gases [in your mouth] combined with coffee that produces that disgusting odor.”

Foods That said, certain foods do produce a bad odor—think garlic and onions and other pungent foods. In fact, when garlic’s potent-smelling sulfur compounds are metabolized, they form something called methyl sulfide, which can’t be digested. Instead, it’s passed through the blood stream to your lungs and skin where it’s excreted. Yup, your skin will smell like garlic. No one knows why but for some people, this smell can last for days.

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