Anyone for a mint?

November 11th, 2015

We’ve all been there: you’ve met with a friend or relative, and on greeting them have gone in for the obligatory kiss on the cheek. However, the close proximity to said companion led to more than you’d bargained for. The moment you inhale, you take in a nostril full of their unsavoury breath. You step back, and try to pretend nothing happened. After all, you can’t tell them they’ve got bad breath, can you?

The Daily Mail recently reported on the claims made by Dr Harold Katz, a leading US-based dentist who is the founder of The California Breath Clinics. Dr Katz proposes that the tongue is the biggest factor when looking at causes of bad breath. Before we consider this further, let’s look at why Dr Katz makes this claim.

Thousands of bacteria live and breed in all of our mouths. These bacteria make their homes on our tongues, but also at the back of our throat and on our tonsils. In order to survive, bacteria perform like other living organisms: they need to eat and then secrete their waste. The waste matter produced smells not too good, and contains all sorts of pungent chemical compounds. These smells are then released through our breath, and this is what gives you this potentially embarrassing problem.

According to Dr Katz, individual differences in our tongues can make bad breath a more or less likely problem. The rougher your tongue is the more nooks and crannies there are for bacteria to live, multiply, eat and secrete in. Likewise, those with fibres on the top surface of the tongue (known as ‘hairy tongue’) may also find that they are harbouring more bacteria.

On the face of it, it certainly sounds like the tongue plays a crucial role in determining how fragrant (or not) our exhalations are. However, the British Dental Health Foundation (BDHF) offer an even more in depth insight. As well as pointing the finger at the tongue, the BDHF propose that the bacteria involved also coat your teeth and gums. Bits of food can also get caught in gaps between the teeth and on the gums. Over time these can rot, which adds to the unpleasant smell. These odours are exacerbated by strong foods (garlic, coffee).

As well as food and bacteria, medical conditions can also lead to bad breath. ‘Dry mouth’ (xerostomia) is a condition that causes a reduction in the amount of saliva produced by the mouth. Less saliva means that less bacteria is washed away, and so this tends to linger in your mouth and continue producing waste. Dry mouth can also be caused by medication, salivary gland problems, or by breathing continuously through your mouth instead of your nose. Older people naturally produce less saliva as well, so this can lead to problems for them. There is also a host of medical problems which can cause bad breath: infections and colds, diabetes, liver and kidney problems.

It would therefore seem that the tongue does play a big part in determining whether we have this problem or not, and if so the extent of it. However, it is possible for bacteria to live and multiply in many other areas of the mouth as well. In additional, numerous other factors (not related to just the tongue) can cause an increase in the problem. Therefore we need to consider the whole mouth when attempting to counteract the problem.

So what can you do to prevent it? Make sure you keep to your regular dental appointments, and do tell your dentist if you believe you have bad breath. Consider keeping a diary of what you’ve eaten, and any medication you’re taking, and take this to your dentist to open your discussions. Ensure you brush twice your teeth twice a day, and clean in between your teeth using ‘interdental’ brushes or dental floss at least once per day. This removes any food remains that could rot. Avoid strongly flavoured foods such as coffee or raw onions that could enhance the problem. You could also try an anti-bacterial mouthwash which should kill any excess bacteria. For more information on preventing bad breath, visit the BDHF website for further tips and advice.

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