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Why does my breath stink?

It’s date night. You stay away from garlic and onions at dinner, and pop a mint to be safe, but you’re convinced there’s a funky smell lingering on your breath. In fact, it seems like your breath leans towards cringe-worthy more often than not. Is something more going on inside the mouth?

Possibly, says Patricia Lenton, M.A., director of the Oral Health Research Clinic at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. Her research expertise is in breath odor.

While dietary choices can play a role in breath odor, she says bacteria are usually to blame.

“The nose provides a protective sensory function. A strong odor indicates to your nose that something isn’t quite right,” Lenton said.

Health Talk spoke with Lenton about when breath odor becomes a problem, some potential underlying causes and how to combat it.

What causes breath odor?

90 percent of the time, volatile sulfur compounds (VSCs) cause stinky breath.

VSCs form when anaerobic bacteria, which exist in our mouths, break down sulfur-containing amino acids and proteins, releasing them into our breath. The proteins come from many sources, including shedding skins cells from the insides of our cheeks and from our tongue. Residual food particles and post-nasal drip are also good sources of proteins. Sulfur gases, by their nature, have an offensive odor, often being compared to rotten eggs.

“Biofilm buildup, or plaque, can lead to an excess of this bacteria. When you practice good oral hygiene, it usually keeps the bacteria – and breath odor – in check,” Lenton said.

How can I reduce bad breath?

Most bad breath stems from the mouth, primarily the back of the tongue. In addition to regular brushing and flossing, Lenton recommends using a tongue scraper. Brushing the tongue can sometimes force VSCs further into the crevices of the tongue.

“Imagine you have a piece of warm toast with melted peanut butter on top,” Lenton said. “Let’s say you drop it onto the carpet. If you try to brush it out, you find it just rubs the peanut butter further into the carpet. But if you took something to scrape it off the top, you’ll get almost all of the peanut butter.”

Tongue scrapers are available most places that sell toothbrushes, but you can also find them online.

What other tips do you have for combating chronic bad breath?

  • Drink more water – Dry mouth is a breeding ground for bacteria and allows stinky breath to ruminate, especially overnight.
  • Consume smaller meals more frequently throughout the day – Breath odor actually drops after eating.
  • Choose “detergent foods” for snacks – Foods like apples, carrots or celery can help clean out the odors hanging around. They help mechanically scrape off some of the tongue bacteria as you chew.

Everyone naturally has breath odor, but it’s important to differentiate chronic breath odors from morning breath or an occasional smellier day than usual. Concerned your breath skews stinky or abnormal? Test your breath on a confidant. You can also self-test by licking the back of your hand, letting it dry and smelling.

In certain situations, smelly breath could indicate an underlying systemic disease, like undiagnosed diabetes. Talk to your dentist and determine whether a trip to your primary care provider or a breath odor professional like Lenton is right for you.

See also: Pharmacy and dentistry students come together to solve common problem.

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