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What is halitosis?

Halitosis is an oral health problem where the main symptom is bad smelling breath. In most cases, finding the cause of the bad breath is the first step toward treating this preventable condition.


There are many causes of bad breath, just as there are many sources of bacteria in the mouth. Halitosis may be caused by the following:

  • Certain foods—The things you eat are linked to your oral health, including your breath. Items such as garlic and onions, or any food for that matter, are absorbed into the bloodstream. Until that food becomes eliminated by the body, it has the potential to affect a person's breath.
  • Poor oral health care—Without proper and consistent brushing and flossing, and routine examinations by your dentist, food remains in the mouth, which is a breeding ground for bacteria. Food that collects on the teeth, gums and tongue may rot, which causes an unpleasant odor and taste in the mouth.
  • Improper cleaning of dentures—Dentures that are not cleaned properly may be collecting bacteria, fungi and remaining food particles, which cause bad breath.
  • Periodontal disease—One of the primary symptoms of this gum disease is foul smelling breath and an unpleasant taste in the mouth. This condition requires immediate care by an oral health professional.
  • Xerostomia (dry mouth)—This condition is often a key part of halitosis. When there is a significant decrease in saliva production, the mouth is unable to cleanse itself and remove debris and particles left behind by food. Xerostomia may be caused by certain medications, a salivary gland disorder, or by continuously breathing through the mouth instead of the nose.
  • Tobacco products—Not only do tobacco products such as cigarettes, cigars, smokeless tobacco and snuff stain the teeth and put the body at risk for a host of diseases, they also contribute to bad breath. Tobacco users also are at an increased risk for the following:
    • Periodontal disease
    • A loss of taste abilities
    • Irritated gums
    • Oral cancer
  • A medical condition—Bad breath may be a sign or symptom of any of the following conditions. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Consult your physician for a diagnosis:
    • A respiratory infection
    • Infection of the nose, windpipe or lungs
    • Chronic bronchitis
    • Postnasal drip
    • Chronic sinusitis
    • Diabetes
    • A gastrointestinal disorder
    • A liver or kidney disorder

Treatment options

Specific treatment for halitosis will be determined by your physician or dentist based on:

  • Health of your mouth
  • Cause or origin of the condition
  • Extent of the condition
  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment depends primarily on the cause of the condition, including:

Cause Possible treatments
Poor oral health care If the bad breath is due to improper oral health care, in most cases your dentist will treat the cause of the problem.
Gum disease If the cause of the halitosis is an underlying gum disease, the condition may be treated by your dentist, or you may be referred to an oral specialist—in most cases, a periodontist. A periodontal cleaning often helps to remove the bacteria and tartar or plaque that has built up and is causing inflammation at the gum line.
Extensive plaque buildup Your dentist or periodontist may recommend an antimicrobial mouth rinse. Also, you may be instructed to brush your tongue gently each time you brush your teeth to help remove excess bacteria.