When you chow down on a garlic-heavy pasta dinner, you can expect your breath to take a hit. Certain types of food will do it to you every time. But if you’re dealing with halitosis on an ongoing basis, it may have more to do with your daily habits than an obsession with Olive Garden breadsticks. One or more of the following common culprits could be to blame.
Your Oral Hygiene Habits Are Lacking
We hate to break it to you, but if your idea of oral hygiene is brushing your teeth for 15 seconds before passing out for the night, then you’ve got to step up your game. “The number one reason for bad breath is not brushing or flossing regularly,” says Jennifer Dean, D.D.S., a dentist in San Diego.
When you skip out on those two activities, debris from food builds up between your teeth and turns into plaque. Plaque then turns into tartar—a hard material that sticks to the sides of your teeth and can only be removed by dental tools. Tartar (or “calculus”) harbors a lot of bacteria, which create a sulfur compound that causes the stink, explains Dean. (Sulfur smells just like rotten eggs.)
So, make it your mission to brush and floss at least twice a day. Dean recommends brushing for two minutes each time (use a timer if you’re used to really skimping). You should also clean your tongue—with a tongue scraper or a separate toothbrush—on a regular basis, since it can become coated in bacteria as food breaks down, says Leslie Renee Townsend, D.D.S., a dentist in Dallas.
Finally, it’s important to visit your dentist every six months for a cleaning to get rid of tartar buildup, says Townsend.
You Have A Big Fat Cavity
While a small cavity probably won’t cause bad breath issues, a real doozy most certainly could, says Dean. Bacteria lead to bad breath, and a cavity is caused by bacterial activity in your mouth. When you have a big ol’ hole in one of your pearly whites, food can get lodged in there, feeding the bacteria and producing a foul odor. Not to beat a dead horse or anything, but that’s why it’s crucial you schedule twice-yearly dental appointments and brush and floss daily.
Your Sweet Tooth Is Out Of Control
Dessert might be your favorite meal of the day (we’re right there with you), but those sweet treats could be to blame for some stank. That’s because bacteria thrive on sugar, says Townsend—and as you now know, bacteria buildup creates the sulfur byproduct responsible for many cases of stinky breath.
Nosh on an apple instead (we know, easier said than done), since crunchy fiber-rich foods like apples, nuts, and leafy greens can help to break down the sulfur. “The chewing process actually cleans your teeth as you eat,” says Townsend.
You’re A Java Junkie
Put down that morning latte for a sec. “Coffee has an effect on your saliva count,” says Dean. “Lower levels of saliva mean a dehydrated and potentially smelly mouth.” Saliva works to remove food in your mouth—and in between your teeth—so the less you have, the more stink-producing buildup you can expect.
The good news: Your parched mouth will typically suffer only until the coffee is out of your system, says Dean. (FYI: Booze also has a similar dehydrating effect, says Townsend.) Both Dean and Townsend recommend upping your water intake to help keep your saliva flowing and to flush food particles out of your mouth.
You’re On Meds
Some medications identify dry mouth (“xerostomia,” if you’re fancy) as a side effect. Anti-anxiety meds and antidepressants are two common types of meds that can cause dry mouth, says Dean.
What you can do: Guzzle more H2O and suck on sugar-free xylitol mints to help kick your salivary glands into action. (Xylitol is a sugar-free sweetener that offers a similar sweet taste without the potentially teeth-damaging effects of sugar.) If dry mouth is really bothering you, consult with your physician to see if you can try a different medication that doesn’t have this side effect, says Dean. Oh, and if you’re going to use mouthwash, reach for one without alcohol (see above).
You Have Gum Disease
According to a study published in the Journal of Dental Research, close to 65 million American adults have gingivitis, which is marked by swollen, red, and even bleeding gums.
You guessed it: Gum disease and bad breath go hand in hand. The longer bacteria-harboring tartar is stuck to your teeth, the higher the chances it causes damage, like gum disease, says Dean.
The best way to manage gum disease is by—wait for it—nailing your oral health routine. That might include dropping in to your dentist’s office more frequently. “Depending on your issues, you may need to visit your dentist every two to four months and get cleanings every three months,” says Dean.
You Have Acid Reflux
Plagued with heartburn and dragon breath? If you’ve been diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), your breath may suffer, too. When you have acid reflux, broken-down food particles come back up towards the throat, which can result in foul odor, says Townsend, who explains that GERD can also strip your tooth enamel and lead to decay. Eep.
See a GI doc to help get the condition under control and your breath should benefit as well.