Urban legend has it that halitosis – bad breath – was “invented” by the makers of Listerine, but what they actually did was just popularize an obscure medical term and brilliantly exploit people’s fear of social rejection through ads like this:
Bad breath, of course, has been an issue for ages. In his 14th century Canterbury Tales, Chaucer described the Summoner as having boozy, garlicky breath, while the “mistress” of Shakespeare’s sonnet 130 has breath that’s said to “reek.” In Don Quixote, the hero rejects the flirtations of Altisadora because of, among other things, “a certain faded breath which will not let you near her for a moment.”
Far from inventing bad breath, Listerine ads and their imitators just made us worry enough about it to spend millions on mouthwashes, strips, sprays, mints, gum and other products to sweeten the breath.
But makes breath smell bad in the first place? Aside from the common culprit of pungent foods such as onions or garlic, there are a number of factors, including
- Poor or spotty home hygiene.
- Irregular cleaning of dentures, splints, retainers or other oral appliances.
- Dental problems, including dry mouth, gum disease, mouth sores and abscessed teeth.
- Diet – especially high-protein/low-carb, but likewise a diet dependent on processed foods containing sugars, white flour and other fermentable carbohydrates.
- Smoking or chewing tobacco.
- Zinc deficiency.
- Antihistamine or prescription drug use.
- Medical conditions, including gastrointestinal (stomach/gut] problems, sinus problems and cancer.
Looking at this list, you may already see a few simple things you can do to keep your breath from going bad in the first place:
- Practice good oral hygiene (at minimum, brushing and flossing regularly and well).
- Regularly clean any oral appliances you use.
- See your dentist regularly, both for cleanings and to catch and deal with any small problems before they become big ones.
- Eat a varied and balanced diet based on whole foods, low in processed carbs.
- Avoid tobacco products.
- Supplement with zinc if you’re not getting enough from diet alone.
Be aware that zinc deficiency can be caused by some medical conditions, in which case you should be treated by your physician, who can also oversee your diet and nutritional supplementation. If you’re in otherwise good health and thinking about taking supplements, be sure to consult a qualified health practitioner first to make sure you take the right dose and aren’t at risk for bad interactions with any medications you take (over-the-counter, prescription, homeopathic or otherwise).
If you already have bad breath, taking the steps above – especially those involving hygiene and diet – can help. Here are a few other home remedies:
- After eating, rinse your mouth with the juice of half a lemon mixed into a glass of water.
- Chew fennel or cardamom seeds after meals.
- Use baking soda instead of toothpaste.
- Add 1 to 3 drops of tea tree oil to your regular toothpaste.
- Take chlorophyll supplements.
- Use a mouth rinse that contains hydrogen peroxide (such as Peroxyl) or a solution of equal parts water and 3% hydrogen peroxide. To be safe, use the latter in the short-term only and rinse your mouth with plain water afterward to prevent dry mouth. With either rinse, if you experience any burning, tooth sensitivity or other problems, stop using the rinse and consult your dentist.
- Mix 1/2 tablespoon of apple cider vinegar into a glass of water and use as a gargle.
If you have chronic bad breath you suspect may be due to dental problems, make an appointment with your dentist for an exam and cleaning. Likewise, if you suspect a medical issue, consult your physician about it – as you should if you suspect medications may be causing the odor. If they’re prescription meds, do not just quit taking them.
Have your own favorite home remedy for bad breath? Share it in the comments!