Kiss bad breath goodbye

By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 8 2021
Columns Kiss bad breath goodbye

By R.S. Karunaratne

“You should be kissed – and often, and by someone who knows how,” said Rhett Butler in ‘Gone with the Wind’ and movie fans gasped. Scarlett O’Hara, her face only inches from his, swooned. But that may have been because Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara was overcome by a whiff of foul air. In fact, Clark Gable, the great Hollywood heartthrob who played Rhett had breath bad enough to deflect cannon fire!

I bumped into one of my old friends at a bookfair in Colombo. Despite the thronging crowd we found a place to exchange a few words. However, I found it extremely difficult to continue our conversation because he had been covering his face with his hand. At first I thought that he must have lost his teeth, but suddenly I felt that he had an offensive breath or halitosis. My heavily-thumbed medical dictionary says, halitosis means “foul-smelling breath. The causes include poor oral hygiene, periodontal disease, a particular food item such as garlic, smoking, alcohol intake, sinusitis, suppurative  respiratory conditions, fetor hepaticus associated with liver failure.”

According to medical authorities, we all have offensive breath at one time or another. When you consume garlic, you are sure to have it. However, it is only a temporary offensive smell that will disappear after some time. But some people find it difficult to get over the problem. Clark Gable was one of them. His offensive breath was caused by dentures, smoking and booze. They are favourable for multiplying bacteria in the mouth. There are other causes as well.

Smelly breath 

If 85 per cent of us are likely to get smelly breath at some point, it is going to be a serious health problem. However, scientists have come to our rescue giving us many ways to tackle the problem. From our childhood we have been advised to brush our teeth at least twice a day. When you brush your teeth for two minutes, bacteria in the mouth will vanish. However, doctors advise us to brush our tongues as well and floss between the teeth. In Sri Lanka many people brush their teeth but only a few people brush their tongues or floss their teeth. Sometimes dental floss is not available at local pharmacies because there is no demand for it. If you wish to keep your mouth bacteria-free, you have to brush your teeth, tongue, palate and cheeks. Flossing will dislodge food particles stuck between teeth and destroy the bacteria. 

Apart from brushing your teeth, it may be necessary to use a mouthwash. However, there is an ongoing debate whether mouthwash is capable of combating bacteria. Some mouthwashes claim to eliminate bacteria responsible for bad breath. Dr Jon L. Richter, director of a centre for the treatment of breath disorders, claims that mouthwashes do not necessarily reach all the offending germs as they are well protected under thick layers of plaque and mucus. If the mouthwash contains alcohol, it can intensify the problem.

Another problem is that mouthwash can mask bad breath odour with its own scent. The effect will last only for about one hour. It is somewhat similar to using candy mints and breath-spray. Therefore instead of buying a bottle of mouthwash over the counter, consult your dentist who will prescribe a brand that will fight bacteria.

Rotten eggs 

Your mouth is full of bacteria feeding on protein in food particles. They emit fetid gases, the foulest of which are hydrogen and sulfide which smells like rotten eggs. The other gas – methyl mercaptan – has a barnyard odour. What is so special about mouth bacteria is that they thrive in airless conditions. Oxygen-rich saliva controls the growth of bacteria. However, during sleep your saliva stream slows down allowing sulfur-producing bacteria to thrive. That is why your morning breath is somewhat foul-smelling.

Doctors have identified many other causes for bad breath. Apart from alcohol and tobacco, even hunger, too much talking, a stuffy nose or breathing through the mouth can cause halitosis. Even stress can cause bad breath but we still do not know the reason. If you have a dry mouth, you are sure to have bad breath. When the saliva flow slows down in old age, elderly people will have a bad-breath problem. You might wonder how babies have sweet-smelling mouths. This is because their mouths are always full of saliva that controls bacteria. 

In order to avoid a dry mouth, your fluid intake should be increased. It is a good practice to sip clean water from a bottle at regular intervals. Anne Bosy, co-founder of the Fresh Breath Clinic in Toronto, Canada recommends water with lemon which really gets the saliva glands going. Chewing sugarless gum also can keep your saliva flowing.


As mentioned earlier, garlic is a common breath-fouling culprit. As commonly believed, garlic breath does not well up from the stomach. The bad smell comes only after you eat garlic and its sulfur compounds make their way into the bloodstream and the lungs. Then you exhale bad breath. Even raw onions can give you halitosis. In order to get rid of food-related bad breath, you have to wait for the odour to dissipate or drink plenty of fluids with your meals. Garlic is good for health, but if you overreacts to it, avoid it altogether. Some people pop a few peppermints after taking alcoholic drinks or smoking. But it can make their breath worse because the mixture of two scents can produce a more offensive odour. On the other hand, even dieting can make you prone to halitosis because you allow the mouth to go dry.

Even if you take all the precautions, you may emit bad breath. Doctors say bad breath tends to run in families. They also believe that periodontal disease causes halitosis. In other words, bacteria cause gum disease leading to bad breath. However, a recent study found that most people with bad breath had no gum disease. Bacteria thrive at the back of the tongue or under plaque and mucus.

Marvin Cohen who runs a halitosis clinic asks his patients to brush their tongues in addition to their teeth. According to him, a tongue is clean if it is a rosy pink colour. A white film on top means there are millions of bacteria living there. Some dentists advise their patients to use a tongue scraper with a chlorine-dioxide preparation. Meanwhile some medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, anti-depressants, tranquilisers, diuretics, and antihypertensives decrease the saliva flow allowing bacteria to thrive.

Bad breath or ‘dragon mouth’ remains a social handicap. You may fight shy of meeting and talking to people because of the bad breath. Some people even do not know whether they have a bad breath. A way around the problem is to sniff your used dental floss or seek medical help. If the doctor confirms that you have halitosis, do not give up hopes. With a little effort and following health guidelines, you can kiss bad breath goodbye!

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By R.S. Karunaratne | Published: 2:00 AM Mar 8 2021

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