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October 2021

What causes bad breath (halitosis) and ways to fix it!

By | Dental Pathology | 6 Comments

Oral Thrush

Halitosis, or bad breath, can have a number of causes. One of the biggest and most common of these is oral thrush as a result of a fungal infection. Candida Albicans can cause a large white, yellow, or brownish patch on the tongue. This typically forms when saliva flow is low, there is increased mouth breathing, insufficient oral hygiene, smoking, or in cases of reduced immunity.

Saliva is not only important to flush away bacteria from the teeth and gums, but also fungal pathogens from the tongue. Low saliva flow is called Xerostomia. When this occurs pathogens are allowed to accumulate and settle in on the tongue resulting in oral thrush.

Xerostomia can be caused by dehydration, most medications, caffeine and alcohol consumption, smoking, advancing age, and Sjogren’s syndrome (an auto-immune condition of the salivary glands that commonly presents with other auto-immune conditions.)

To improve xerostomia drink plenty of water, switch medications (where possible), reduce caffeine and alcohol intake, and quit smoking. There are also certain aides you can purchase that can stimulate saliva flow delivered in mouthwashes, toothpastes, and gels.

Mouth breathing may be due to sinus congestion, so if there are issues here it is advisable to investigate these with your GP or an Ear Nose and Throat Surgeon. Nasal sprays can be useful for periods of heavier congestion.

In addition to improving your saliva, brushing your tongue every time you brush your teeth will help clear this fungal accumulation. Using your toothbrush is fine, however, since a soft or ultrasoft toothbrush is the preferred brush for your teeth, it is best to use a tongue scraper. You can also use fungal lozenges and gels that your dentist can prescribe for you, though these tend to have a somewhat limited effect.

Whenever you notice any abnormal patches on your tongue or elsewhere in your mouth, ensure you see your dentist to investigate. Though oral thrush is the most common cause, this could be due to other conditions which will need further treatment.

Gum Disease

When halitosis is particularly mentionable by your peers, it could be due to gum disease, either severe gingivitis or periodontitis. Both will present with red, bleeding gums, particularly when brushing and flossing. Without intervention, gum disease is likely to worsen over time and can lead to wobbly teeth and early tooth loss.

To prevent gum disease ensure you are brushing for two minutes, twice a day, brushing your gums gently but thoroughly. Floss at least once a day. Don’t be scared if you see any bleeding. Bleeding means there is bacteria and it’s the bacteria inflaming your gums. Remove the bacteria and the gums should improve.

Ensure any issues with the gums are assessed by a dentist. Once severe periodontitis sets in the damage is often irreversible. Bad breath from gum disease generally responds very quickly to treatment.


Reflux can occur with a weak oesophageal sphincter (GORD), related to your diet and quantity of food eaten, stomach ulcers, or from other issues from the stomach or gastrointestinal tract. When halitosis is caused by reflux you’ll likely experience multiple periods of an acidic taste occurring in your mouth. You may also present with a higher amount of tooth wear. Drinking plenty of water and eating smaller portions may help. Also avoid acidic and carbonated beverages. If simple changes to your diet doesn’t improve your reflux it is best to investigate with your GP.

Tonsil Stones

Small white/yellow calcifications may develop within your tonsils which are generally shed from time to time. Tonsil stones are more likely to occur with dehydration and regular alcohol and caffeine intake. Most of the time these will be shed and swallowed without you realising, though someone smelling your breath at the time may detect something a bit stale. Unless you suffer any symptoms tonsil stones aren’t usually too much of a concern. Simply drink plenty of water and few, if any, tonsil stones will develop. If you notice a fair number of these shedding, or have sore, enlarged tonsils without signs of an infection, have your tonsils examined by your dentist or GP.

Tooth Decay and Abscesses

When bad breath is a result of tooth decay or abscesses within the mouth, you’ll likely be aware of the issues. For tooth decay to be severe enough to cause halitosis you’ll be able to feel the size of the holes easily with your tongue. Abscesses will usually be quite painful. There may be pus leaking giving a foul taste and cellulitis, swelling around the cheeks and jaws. See your dentist immediately if you show any of these conditions. Cellulitis is of particular concern, as swellings arising from infected teeth could also block airways in severe cases.

Lesions Within the Mouth

Sores, cuts and ulcers could also lead to bad breath. In cases of extracted teeth, food can occasionally get caught here and will cause a smell. Keep any lesions clean with salt water rinses and ensure you do not pick at the area. Picking at sores will remove the healing factors in place and delay healing. If any sore persist after two weeks without improvement or worsening smells see you dentist immediately as this could indicate an infection or some other chronic condition.

Lesions that do not resolve in time or come and go, that are painful or bleed, should always be assessed by your dentist. Some of these could be auto-immune related or, in rare cases, carry carcinogenic properties. Early identification and management is vital in these cases.

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