Bad breath can make social interaction difficult, whether you're the offendee or the offender. But it also can give you some important clues about your health. In fact, some of these clues are so important that if you notice them, it's worth the potential embarrassment to alert a loved one to the problem. Other causes of bad breath aren't life-threatening, but they can still have detrimental effects on your health. Regardless of what's causing bad breath, it's worth investigating to eliminate the cause, rather than merely trying to mask the odor.
In general, bad breath develops when bacteria in our mouth break down the food we eat, releasing gases called volatile sulfur compounds. Some foods result in stronger smells than others, which is why you can tell when someone had onions or garlic on their sandwich at lunch.
While garlic breath may be unpleasant, it won't kill any one. But breath that smells fishy or like urine or ammonia is a sign of kidney failure. And if a diabetic's breath begins to smell fruity or like nail polish remover, he or she needs to go to the doctor right away. This can be a sign of diabetic ketoacidosis, which can be life-threatening. This condition occurs when the pancreas doesn't make enough insulin, causing the body to start using fatty acids for energy. The resulting buildup of acidic ketones in the blood can result in a diabetic coma.
A more common cause of bad breath is a stomach infection, which is often due to the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori). H. pylori can cause stomach cancer and ulcers, so if a brave soul has indicated that your breath is less than pleasant, it's worth getting checked out.
In the United States, 14-18% of Caucasians, 38-45% of Hispanics, and 44-46% of African Americans have an H. pylori infection, and many don't even know it. This bacterium is very easily spread, and studies have linked it pretty clearly to bad breath. In one such study, the researchers tested 98 people with indigestion for H. pylori, bad breath, and a coated tongue.
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They found that 66 of the subjects (over two-thirds) did indeed have an H. pylori infection. Of those, 20 had bad breath. In contrast, only three of the non-infected patients had bad breath. Eighteen of the infected patients also had coated tongues, compared with two of the non-infected patients.
Once the bacteria were wiped out with antibiotics and an acid-blocking medication, only 6.4% of the patients still had bad breath or a coated tongue. So if you have indigestion or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), also linked to bad breath, it's worth talking to a doctor to see if an infection is to blame.
Of course, as you might expect, problems in the mouth can cause bad breath as well. Gum disease in particular may be to blame, as the bacteria that cause the disease can also live on your tongue and release a bad odor. The same thing can happen with cavities. Or you could simply not be flossing regularly (which will help reduce your risk of gum disease and cavities as well).
Finally, bad breath could be an indicator that you have sleep apnea. Your body produces less saliva while you sleep as it is. But people with obstructive sleep apnea often sleep with their mouths open, exacerbating this problem. One study of the issue found that 30.4% of 744 participants with sleep apnea had bad breath. Other studies have linked sleep apnea to periodontal disease.
As you can see, there are many potential culprits behind bad breath. To eliminate it, first make sure you're practicing good oral hygiene and brushing and flossing regularly. Avoid antibacterial mouthwashes, which kill beneficial bacteria along with the bad ones and can both leave you vulnerable to gum disease and raise your blood pressure. See your dentist regularly for cleanings too. Don't just mask bad breath with mints, as they're often full of sugar and bad for your teeth in the long run. If you know you'll be eating something smelly, try carrying a toothbrush with you so you can freshen up after your meal.
Bad breath can be embarrassing, but it can also be beneficial if it helps you identify an underlying issue that's hurting your health. If you suspect your breath is regularly less than pleasant, talk to your dentist or your doctor so you can begin getting to the root of the problem. Your friends and family will thank you!
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