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Is Halitosis the Same as Bad Breath?

12/06/23 Bernard J. Hennessy, DDS, Texas A&M University, College of Dentistry;

Halitosis sounds like a pretty scary thing to be diagnosed with. In fact, halitosis is just the medical term for bad breath or a frequent or persistent unpleasant odor to the breath. The sworn enemy of first dates and job interviews, bad breath can have serious social consequences if left untreated. What’s more, it can sometimes be a sign of other underlying medical conditions.

That’s why it’s so important to identify the causes of bad breath and eliminate it. Here are four steps to treat and eliminate bad breath. 

1. Identify the source

If you think you have bad breath, or someone close to you has told you they think you do, the first step to keeping it in check is to figure out where it’s coming from. Bad breath is most often caused by the action of certain mouth bacteria. These bacteria break down certain amino acids into foul-smelling substances. Typically, there are things you can try at home before seeing a doctor, including better dental hygiene habits and avoiding odor-producing things like garlic, onions, alcohol, and tobacco.

In some cases, bad breath warrants a trip to the doctor to determine the cause. Start by bringing it up with your dentist. The dentist will ask about your medical history and then do an examination. About 9 in 10 cases of halitosis are caused by issues in the mouth. Typically, doctors will look for a cause starting in your mouth, such as gingivitis or periodontal disease before considering other parts of your body that may be responsible for the odor.

2. Maintain good habits at home

For the majority of cases of bad breath originating in the mouth, dentists will recommend that you step up your at-home dental care regimen. At a minimum, that means brushing at least twice a day. But there are a number of other things you can do to keep your mouth healthy and your halitosis under control.

  • Flossing your teeth — Despite some reports to the contrary, flossing is still recommended and an essential part of taking care of your teeth – especially when it’s done right.
  • Brushing your tongue — One part of the mouth that should not be overlooked is the tongue. The tongue has a lot of bacteria which can be neutralized with consistent brushing. Tongue scrapers can also help with bad odors.
  • Using mouthwash — Mouthwash can have antibacterial effects. Talk to your dentist about which they recommend.

3. Keep up with regular cleanings

Regular dental cleanings are an essential part of good oral hygiene. While lack of access remains a challenge for many individuals and families, it’s a best practice to see a dentist for a cleaning at least twice a year, and that’s especially true for individuals suffering from bad breath. In some cases, dentists will recommend a deep cleaning to eliminate sources of odors and improve oral health.

4. Rule out other causes

In a small number of cases, bad breath may be caused by more serious underlying medical conditions. For causes of bad breath that don’t stem from the mouth, the smell itself can be a useful indicator.

  • Liver failure gives the breath a unique mousy (musty, sweet, and sometimes a faintly rotten egg-like [sulfurous] odor).
  • Kidney failure makes the breath smell like urine or ammonia.
  • Severe, uncontrolled diabetes makes the breath smell like nail polish remover (acetone).

If these scents are present or the cause can't be determined, the dentist may refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist or your primary care doctor for additional evaluation and testing. 

In a vast majority of cases, however, halitosis and bad breath can be addressed with good oral hygiene habits, including consistent at-home care and regular cleanings. Not only can these steps improve your breath and your teeth, but they can also help improve your overall health as well.

For more on halitosis, visit the Manuals page on the topic