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7 Surprising Causes of Bad Breath

Bad breath isn’t something we really want to talk about. But up to 50 percent of people have suffered or will suffer from it at some point, so let’s just go there.

“In about 85 percent of cases of bad breath, also known medically as halitosis, the problem stems from bacterial activity in the mouth, which results in the release of substances such as volatile sulfur compounds,” Missouri-based public health physician Dr. Obianuju Helen Okoye explains. While many people are aware of common causes of halitosis, such as garlic, smoking and poor oral health care, other causes may come as a surprise.

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1. Stress

We’ve all experienced a dry mouth when we’re feeling anxious thanks to the stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol. “Imagine the perfect storm of these stress hormones,” says clinical dental hygienist and author Anastasia Turchetta. “Together they can alter the production of the bacteria VSC [volatile sulfur compounds] thus contributing to bad breath.”

2. Tonsil stones

You probably haven’t heard of tonsil stones, and it’s perfectly possible to have them and not even know they’re there. “It is a collection of bacteria and food debris that gets lodged into the crevice of your tonsil tissue,” Turchetta explains. “The matrix hardens and smells really bad. It’s hard to see and usually very small so you will not know it is there.” In many cases, lifestyle changes and a good oral hygiene regimen will get rid of tonsil stones, but in more serious cases, removal by a dental professional will be required.

3. Skipping meals

Did you know your mouth produces around three pints of saliva every single day? It has an important job: helping with digestion, carrying essential calcium and phosphorus to build strong teeth and fighting against the harmful bacteria that cause gum and periodontal diseases. Basically, saliva production is pretty important.

“When you skip meals, you don’t produce enough saliva,” warns Rebecca Lee, a registered nurse from New York City and creator of Remedies For Me, a site that sheds light on natural remedies for various ailments, including oral health and bad breath. “When your body doesn’t get the proper nutrients, it breaks down fats into ketones, which causes a fruity odor. The start of digestion begins in the mouth, by your salivary glands. A decrease in saliva causes bad breath because saliva carries antimicrobial agents.”

4. Mouth breathing

Something else that dries out the mouth, reduces saliva and leads to a proliferation of bacteria and the resulting odor is mouth breathing. “Mouth breathing, whether during the day or night, dries out the oral environment,” says Philadelphia cosmetic dentist Dr. Lindsey Marshall. “Allergies and sinus issues with nasal stuffiness or sinus drip, sleep apnea and snoring are other potential causes.”

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5. Coffee

If you want to keep your breath smelling sweet, consider reducing your coffee intake. “Coffee is dehydrating and can dry out the mouth,” says Lee. “Saliva carries good and bad bacteria, and when your mouth is dry, you are not producing enough saliva. Make sure to drink a cup of water for every cup of coffee you drink.”

6. Tongue piercing

People don’t always associate yeast infections with oral hygiene, but there’s a definite link. If you have an obvious lesion in your mouth, such as a tongue piercing, your risk of an oral yeast infection increases, explains dermatologist and nutritionist Dr. Natasha Sandy. As well as a white, yellow or cream-colored, curd-like appearance on the tongue, an oral yeast can cause a burning sensation in the mouth, soreness and/or sensitivity to acidic and spicy foods, an unpleasant taste in the mouth and bad breath.

7. Too much protein

High-protein diets may be popular, but one downside is bad breath. The body normally breaks down protein into amino acids, of which ammonia is a by-product. The liver would convert the ammonia into urea, a benign organic compound that the kidneys dispel of in the form of urine. But if the body is starved of carbohydrates and depending on protein for most of its energy, the liver may not be able to handle the high levels of ammonia. “This gives off a strong fishy smell in both the breath and sweat,” says Okoye.

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