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What to do about bad breath

A dental check-up is the first priority. The British Dental Association suggests that you explain in advance that you will be asking for advice about bad breath. Tell the receptionist when you make an appointment, and ask that it is noted down and that the dentist is told. Ask the dentist for a thorough scale and polish, and ask if there are any defects where plaque and food debris might be building up.

Clean your teeth properly. A dental hygienist (make an appointment via your dentist) will show you how to clean your teeth properly, and how to use floss to clean between the teeth. Give your teeth a thorough cleaning for 3 minutes twice a day to remove the plaque, and use floss (see How to clean your teeth). Use disclosing tablets (which you can buy from pharmacies); these dye the plaque on your teeth, showing the areas you have not been cleaning properly. Use a toothpick after meals to remove large food particles from between the teeth and, if possible, rinse your mouth out after meals.
How to clean your teeth
  • Use a brush with a small head, about the size of a 20p or 5c coin.
  • Use only a pea-sized blob of toothpaste. Toothpaste is abrasive and too much can cause wear of the teeth.
  • The British Dental Association recommends the gentle scrub method. Place the brush at the neck of the tooth where it meets the gum and use very short horizontal movements, at a 45 degree angle, to dislodge the plaque. The brush can be held in a pen-like grip to avoid excessive force.

Diagram showing how to brush your teeth
Buy a tongue cleaner. This is a curved plastic scraper like a small garden hoe. Stick out your tongue and place the cleaner onto the tongue as far back as possible. Then pull forward while gently pressing against the tongue surface. Do not scrape too much, because if you scratch the tongue, bacteria will get into the cracks and make the problem worse. You can buy tongue cleaners from most dentists and some pharmacies.
If you cannot obtain a tongue scraper, brushing the tongue with a soft toothbrush once a day may be helpful. The most important part to clean is the back of the tongue, if you can do this without gagging. Wet the brush with mouthwash, then stroke from the back of the tongue in an outwards motion. Do not overdo the brushing; the idea is to dislodge any bacteria and flush out stagnant saliva.
Don't skip meals (especially breakfast). You need to eat regularly to keep the saliva flowing.
Eat plenty of fruit. Chewing fruit keeps the mouth moist, and dislodges dead cells and bacteria. Pineapple is especially good, because it contains an enzyme that helps to clean the mouth.
Drink black tea, that is tea without milk. Researchers at the University of Illinois, USA, found that chemicals in tea can stop the growth of the bacteria responsible for bad breath, and may suppress the bad-smelling chemicals they produce. However, to get the most benefit, the tea must be drunk without milk.
Chewing sugar-free gum can be helpful because it stimulates the flow of saliva and involves movements of the jaw and cheeks. Both these factors help to remove food debris and cleanse the mouth.
Stopping smoking will get rid of ‘smoker’s breath’.
Mouthwashes, deodorizing mouth sprays or tablets will mask bad breath temporarily - useful after eating onion or garlic. Modern mouthrinses also contain antibacterial chemicals so, in theory, they should improve gum disease and mouth odour. There are many different types on pharmacy shelves, so you will need to check the label to see what they contain. Before bedtime is the most effective time to use these mouthrinses. Gargle with the mouthrinse, sticking your tongue out at the same time, and then spit the mouthwash out.
  • There is some scientific evidence that mouthrinses containing chlorhexidine, cetylpyridinium chloride, chlorine dioxide or zinc lactate can reduce bad breath somewhat (Cochrane Database Systematic Review 2008, CD006701). Although chlorhexidine is one of the most effective antibacterial mouthrinse ingredients, it tastes nasty and darkens teeth slightly for a few days. Also, look at the label to check if the mouthwash contains alcohol. Alcohol can dry the mouth and make the problem worse.
  • You can make your own mouthrinse by dissolving half a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda (baking soda) in half a cup of warm water.
Herbs may help, but do not use herbs if you are pregnant.
  • Chamomile and myrrh are said to have anti-bacterial properties. Peppermint, rosemary, sage and cloves have a pleasant smell, which helps to mask bad breath. Pour 1 pint (500 ml) of boiling water onto 2–4 oz (75–125 g) of herb or 1 oz (30 g) of cloves. Leave to cool for 1 hour, then strain and use as a mouthwash (i.e. swish around your mouth and then spit out).
  • Health shops stock mouthrinses containing extract of Salvadora persica, a bush grown in Africa and known locally as the toothbrush tree because twigs from it are used to clean the teeth. Chemicals from the plant dissolve plaque. It has a pleasant taste, flavoured with oils of peppermint, clove and geranium, and does not contain alcohol.

If you have dentures, remove them at night and soak them in a solution of hypochlorite or chlorhexidine. A pharmacist will be able to advise you.

Written by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Edited by: Dr Margaret Stearn
Last updated: Friday, February 26th 2010


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Comments on this article

Posted by Octy on 16/12/2014 at 12:10

I do have bad breath as well as malodor of my body since i was child, i have searched remedies from the websites and tried many medications to cure the problems, until now i still suffer the bad breath and i do embarassed to interact with people and this make up felt so upset especially during work time. Please forward any helpful suggestions or any effective remedies

Posted by Umang Agarwal on 19/06/2009 at 08:31

Most of the time my son breath from mouth , & having bad breath from mouth. He is 9 year old. Please advise.

Posted by Paddy on 04/06/2009 at 09:08

i cannot brush the teeth at the back of my mouth as it tends to make me want vomit any clues out there?

Posted by Kitt Mason on 28/04/2009 at 09:52 Mouthwashes Increase The Risk Of Oral Cancer Dear Reader, Australian researchers from the University of Queensland say that alcohol-based mouthwashes may be a cause of oral cancer. The research team, which includes dentists, says that dentists should stop recommending mouthwashes such as Listerine, and that the products should be removed from the shelves. Not exactly a fresh and minty taste... After reviewing the data of the latest research, researchers at the University of Queensland say there is


What to do about bad breath

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