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Fresh-Mouthed Answers to Bad Breath
By: Graziano Giglio, DDS & Paul R. Kamen, DDS, FACD
Bad breath is a common but embarrassing social problem that is likely to have plagued anyone who eats onion and garlic. But some unfortunate souls seem to have bad breath more often than others. This might explain why Americans are doling out over $3 billion to buy gum, mints and other industry remedies in pursuit of fresh breath. Chronic bad breath, a condition known as halitosis, can stem from poor oral hygiene, dry mouth and even the Atkins diet.
Below, Richard H. Price, DMD, a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association who practiced dentistry in Newton, Massachusetts, explains the best ways to combat bad breath, and not just disguise it.
What causes bad breath?Ninety percent of bad breath problems are caused by unique bacteria in the mouth. They are anaerobic bacteria that produce volatile sulfur compounds that consist of hydrogen sulfides and mercaptans. These compounds are what gives bad breath its distinctive odor, that rotten egg odor.
How does what you eat affect your breath?There's food and there's diet, and both can influence your breath. There's onion breath, garlic breath, tobacco breath. The odor-causing chemicals that give onion, for example, its distinctive odor are digested and the digested products go into the bloodstream. The blood is brought back to the lungs to get fresh oxygen, so you breathe in and out the onion breath (or garlic breath, or tobacco breath).
There's also bad breath that is associated with certain diets, such as the Atkins diet. In order to efficiently burn fat, you need a certain amount of carbohydrate, and the Atkins diet is a low carbohydrate diet. So if you don't have enough carbohydrate, the body has to modify the way it deals with fat and it produces a chemical substance known as ketones. Ketones give the breath a different odor.
How does poor dental hygiene contribute to bad breath?Even somebody whose mouth is meticulously scraped, cleaned and flossed can still have bad breath, but if you don't have good oral hygiene, you're more likely to have it. With poor dental hygiene, we're talking about a buildup of plaque. Plaque is made up of colonies of bacteria mixed with mucous, cells that slough off the cheeks, and food debris. Food sitting around anywhere else is called garbage—and garbage has a distinct aroma to it. So decomposing foods that are not removed from the mouth via dental floss, a toothbrush, and rinsing, will produce odors.
In addition, a mouth that has unfilled cavities or gum disease in which there might be spaces between the tooth and gums, gives bacteria a place to hide where you can't clean them out. In fact, people who experience bleeding of the gums from gum disease have breakdown products in the blood that give the mouth a distinctive odor.
How do dry mouth conditions contribute to bad breath?For the most part, if the bacterial population is kept under control, the volatile sulfur compounds that these bacteria produce dissolve in saliva. It's when saliva gets saturated that the smelly vapors will start to come out. You've seen a quickly moving stream in the woods. It's much cleaner than the ones that are stagnant. Well, with a copious saliva flow, you tend to clean the mouth out a lot. When the mouth is dry, there's not as much cleansing action.
Respiratory infections and allergies can contribute to dry mouth. People with colds and allergies tend to breathe through their mouth, which dries out the mouth. And if you get a postnasal drip, the mucous dripping coats the back part of the tongue. Beneath this mucous coating are these anaerobic bacteria and, to them, that's Club Med. So they just start flourishing.
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