What Halitosis Says About Your Health

Bad breath, or halitosis, ranks as one of the top reasons why people visit the dentist - coming in just after tooth decay and concerns about gum disease. The most common reasons behind bad breath are dry mouth or poor oral hygiene. Odors are created as a byproduct of digestion as bacteria break down food that is left behind in the mouth if it is not brushed, flossed or rinsed away. Most people find a remedy with a toothbrush, a quick swish of mouthwash or just pop a mint for temporary relief.


For many other people, bad breath is severe and recurring – despite their best efforts to practice proper oral hygiene. In these cases, bad breath indicates a more serious health problem. "Dentists are often the first to connect bad breath to potential health problems in their patients," says Dr. Amy Norman, D.D.S., P.S.


Patients with chronic heartburn or acid reflux disease experience bad breath because bad-smelling stomach acid backs up into the esophagus, throat and mouth. "Stomach acid and the bacteria that go along with it cause tooth decay, gingivitis and periodontal disease which also result in bad breath," according to Norman.


Breath that has a fruity odor can indicate possible ketoacidosis in patients that have diabetes. Ketoacidosis occurs when insulin is low, and may result in a diabetic coma or death. Some patients with ketoacidosis are not even aware they may be diabetic until there is a connection to the smell of their breath. Breath tests have proven to be more accurate than urine tests to signal a patient has ketoacidosis and diabetes.


Fishy or ammonia smelling breath can indicate possible kidney failure. This type of bad breath occurs when the body is unable to break down certain organic compounds found in some foods. As a result, this foul smelling compound comes out in sweat, urine, and breath.


Dry mouth also causes bad breath and may even indicate a health problem like sleep apnea. Dr. Norman treats sleep apnea patients in her Everett, Washington dental practice. Sleep apnea patients frequently sleep with their mouth open in an effort to get more oxygen and often experience dry mouth as a result. "Bad breath happens when saliva dries up and bacteria have a chance to multiply," says Norman. Smoking also dries out the mouth and causes long-lasting bad breath.


Even good breath may also help identify potential health issues. Breath analysis machines detect a wide range of health problems, including heart disease, lung cancer and dementia. These devices measure the volume of certain gasses present when a person exhales. These gasses clue doctors into medical conditions and their severity.


The tongue is also a source of bad breath and is often overlooked during oral hygiene routines. Brushing the tongue or using a tongue scraper also helps to improve the quality of breath by removing the film that contains smelly bacteria that coats the tongue and gives off odors.


Many people with bad breath rely on temporary cures like gum or mints to freshen up, but these options actually increase bad breath creating bacteria because they are typically very high in sugar. Others use antibacterial mouthwashes in order to kill off bad bacteria in the mouth and rinse away bad breath. These powerful mouthwashes kill off all the mouth's bacteria – even the good ones – and leave the mouth open to infection and the possibility of more bad breath.


Patients worried about bad breath should talk to their dentist about their concerns. "For many individuals, bad breath is completely treatable through proper oral hygiene," says Norman.

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