Bad Breath: Everything You Need to Know and How to Fix It

Bad Breath: Everything You Need to Know and How to Fix It
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Bad Breath: Everything You Need to Know and How to Fix ItClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. What is Bad Breath?
  2. Causes
  3. Symptoms to Watch
  4. Prevention
  5. Who Treats Bad Breath?
  6. Treatment Options
  7. When to See a Doctor
  8. Helpful Products
  9. Frequently Asked Questions
  10. References

Bad breath, or halitosis, is a common condition that makes the air you exhale smell foul. It can be caused by a multitude of different health and lifestyle factors (often many at once). In rare cases, it can be a sign of a serious health issue that requires urgent treatment. 

To put an end to your bad breath for good, you will first need to identify what is causing the problem. Most cases can be treated with a few small diet and lifestyle changes. If your bad breath persists after making these changes, you may need to see a dentist or doctor for further treatment.

What Is Bad Breath or Halitosis?

Bad breath (also called halitosis) is a common problem that makes your breath smell unpleasant. It can strike anyone at any age, but seniors and smokers are both at higher risk of developing the condition. 

You may not always be able to tell if your breath is bad. Many people only find out that they have bad breath when someone tells them about it. If you are worried about the scent of your breath, cup your hand over your mouth and nose and breathe out from your mouth. Whatever scent you detect after doing this is a stronger version of what those around you can smell.

Common Causes

For many people, bad breath is multifactorial (caused by several different factors at once). Some of the most common factors that make you more likely to develop bad breath include:

  • Diet. Eating strong-smelling foods (garlic, onions, fish, curry, etc.) can make your breath smell like those foods. This usually lasts just a few hours each time you eat these foods. Eating them on a regular basis could lead to chronic bad breath. 
  • Poor oral hygiene. Failing to brush and floss your teeth regularly allows bacteria to build up in your mouth. These bacteria produce a foul-smelling gas called sulfur. The more bacteria are present, the stronger the smell becomes.
  • Poor denture hygiene. If you do not clean your dentures regularly, they can grow large colonies of smelly oral bacteria. 
  • Sleep. Many people experience “morning breath" right after they wake up due to bacterial growth during the night. 
  • Dry mouth. Reduced saliva flow makes the bacteria in your mouth grow faster, leading to foul-smelling breath.
  • Alcohol use. Heavy drinking can dry out your mouth and make your breath smell strongly like alcohol. 
  • Smoking. Smoking causes dry mouth and exposes your mouth to chemicals which can increase bacteria growth. 
  • Medications. Some medications break down inside your body and release chemicals that affect the scent of your breath.
  • Gastric reflux. The excess acid present in your esophagus during gastric reflux attacks can give your breath a tangy, sour scent. 
  • Nasal and respiratory problems. When mucus, tonsil stones, nasal polyps or other obstructions clog up your airway, they can collect bacteria and develop an unpleasant odor. Because the air you breathe passes the smelly spot on its way out, your breath may carry that smell as well. 

Rare Causes

In rare cases, bad breath may be the result of a serious underlying health condition. Some of the conditions that can cause bad breath include:

  • Diabetes
  • Bowel problems
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Mouth, nose or throat cancer

Symptoms to Watch

There are some signs of severe disease that may accompany bad breath. Watch out for any of the following:

  • Fruity-smelling breath. Fruity breath is a hallmark symptom of uncontrolled diabetes. If your blood sugar is not regulated soon after this symptom is spotted, you may slip into a diabetic coma or even die.
  • Abdominal pain. New or worsening bowel pain could be a sign of liver, kidney or bowel problems. 
  • Changes in defecation or urination. Changes in frequency, consistency, color or smell when urinating or defecating may point to kidney or bowel problems.
  • Severe coughing or shortness of breath. If you cannot breathe properly or find yourself coughing frequently and intensely, your bad breath might be due to severe congestion from a respiratory problem like pneumonia.
  • Toothache. If you are experiencing pain from one or more of your teeth, you may have untreated tooth decay or severe gum disease. 

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, call your doctor or dentist as soon as possible to avoid further complications.


Most cases of bad breath can be prevented. The following strategies can help you manage the problem:

  • Improve your oral hygiene. Brush twice a day for at least two minutes each time and floss once a day. Brushing and flossing your teeth cleans away the foul-smelling bacteria that builds up in your mouth over time. Using flavored toothpaste (especially minty flavors) can also freshen your breath. 
  • Change your diet. Avoiding foods that are known to cause bad breath will help keep your breath fresh.
  • Clean your dentures daily. Take them out before bed and allow them to soak in a denture cleaning solution overnight. 
  • Brush your tongue. Your tongue is teeming with oral bacteria and food particles. Gently brush your tongue using your toothbrush or scrape it with a tongue scraper to clean those contaminants away and stop them from creating unpleasant smells. 
  • Sip more water. Water moistens your mouth, washes away some of the bacteria there, and delivers fluoride to your teeth to help them resist decay.  
  • Limit smoking and alcohol. The less you smoke and drink, the less likely you are to develop bad breath.

Who Treats Bad Breath?

Dentists treat bad breath related to your oral health. Since oral health issues are the most likely causes of your bad breath, you should always see a dentist first when you are struggling with this problem. 

If your dentist cannot identify the root cause of the problem in your mouth, you will need to see your doctor about your bad breath. You may have an underlying health issue (like diabetes or an infection) that needs treatment before your breath can be improved.

Treatment Options

There are many things you can do to improve bad breath. Some can be done at home while others require the help of a dentist or doctor.

Home Remedies

Many plants and herbs have antibacterial or antimicrobial properties that can help you keep your mouth bacteria-free. These include:

  • Miswak (a root native to Africa)
  • Thyme
  • Anise
  • Oregano
  • Clove
  • Basil

Some of these herbs are also naturally scented and can help replace bad odors with more pleasant ones. For example, chewing some anise can give your breath a mild licorice scent.

Professional Treatments

Several professional treatments can help you freshen your breath. These include:

  • A dental cleaning. Tartar build-up makes it easy for bacteria to cling to your teeth and gums. Getting a thorough dental cleaning removes this tartar and reduces the number of hiding spots where bacteria can gather in your mouth. 
  • Treatment for dental cavities. Even small cavities can have an impact on your breath. Have a dentist examine your teeth and treat any decay they find. 
  • Sinus sprays. If your bad breath is caused by sinus issues, a sinus spray can flush out some of the mucus and bacteria that have built up 
  • Nose and throat surgery. If your bad breath is caused by congestion, your doctor may recommend surgery to open blocked or narrow respiratory passages and help you breathe more easily. 
  • Treatment for dry mouth. Severe cases of dry mouth may not respond well to home remedies like extra fluids and chewing gum. A doctor can help you treat this condition and improve the smell of your breath. This may involve a change of medication, prescription mouth rinses, or saliva-stimulating medications.

When to See a Doctor

If you are still experiencing bad breath after modifying your diet and lifestyle, see your dentist. You may have tooth decay or gum disease that must be treated before your breath can improve. This is especially important if you are experiencing tooth sensitivity or have spotted discoloration on your teeth. 

If your dentist cannot identify the reason for your bad breath, call your doctor. You may have an underlying health condition that requires medical treatment. Once that condition is under control, your breath should begin to improve.

Helpful Products

There are many products available to help you freshen your breath. Some of the most effective include:

  • Mints and gum. Popping a mint or a piece of gum in your mouth can temporarily freshen your breath. Using these products also stimulates saliva flow. Choose products sweetened with xylitol for an added antibacterial effect.
  • Mouthwash. Regular use of mouthwash helps to kill bacteria that build up on your teeth between brushing sessions and give your breath a pleasant minty scent. Look for an alcohol-free version that will not dry out your mouth and make the problem worse.
  • Breath freshening sprays. Breath freshening sprays make it easy to quickly treat your bad breath on the go. The best sprays deliver antibacterial ingredients like xylitol and eucalyptol alongside breath-freshening agents like menthol. 
  • Tongue scrapers. Using a tongue scraper allows you to give your tongue a thorough cleaning without wearing your toothbrush down prematurely. Metal scrapers work best due to their high durability and antibacterial properties.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you fix bad breath?
Bad breath can often be fixed by finding the root cause of the problem. In most cases, improving your oral hygiene and avoiding foods that are known to cause the condition will get rid of your bad breath.
Can bad breath be cured?

In most cases, yes. Bad breath is almost always the result of dietary choices or inadequate oral hygiene. Correcting these issues also fixes your bad breath. When health issues are the problem, treating those issues will improve the scent of your breath but may not fully remove the unpleasant smell.

If bad breath continues to be a problem for you, you can use products like breath sprays or gum to help you manage the condition.

How can you tell if your breath stinks?
To check the odor of your breath, cup your hand on front of your mouths and nose and breathe out through your mouth, then smell the air you have trapped. You can also try breathing into a cup, bottle, or paper bag.
What is the most common cause of bad breath?
Most short-term bad breath is caused by something you ate. Most chronic bad breath is caused by poor oral hygiene, smoking or both.


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When and how often should you brush your teeth? (October 2021). Mayo Clinic. 

Halitosis: the multidisciplinary approach. (June 2012). International Journal of Oral Science. 

Bad or Changed Breath. (October 2020). University of Michigan Health. 

Bad Breath: 6 Causes (and 6 Solutions). (2022). MouthHealthy. 

Bad Breath (Halitosis). (2022). University of Rochester Medical Center. 

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Bad breath: What causes it and what to do about it. (January 2019). Harvard Health Publishing. 

What Your Bad Breath Might be Telling You. (July 2018). UNC Health Talk.

The Best Bad-Breath Remedies, According to Dentists. (June 2021). New York Magazine: The Strategist.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.