Bad breath (medically known as halitosis) affects around 30 per cent of people at some point, with a number of potential causes, including, obviously, spicy or strong-smelling foods, gum disease (which allows bacteria to thrive in the mouth and taint the breath), smoking and nasal congestion.
It can have a damaging effect on self-esteem, relationships and wellbeing — and for some, like Duke Al, it is a valuable warning sign of something more serious.
‘Fishy’ breath (and sweat, too), for example, can be a sign of poor kidney function. The foul smell derives from a chemical called trimethylamine which builds up when the kidneys fail to clear waste from the bloodstream.
A sour breath can be due to acid reflux, a condition affecting up to one in four adults in the UK, where a faulty valve allows stomach acid to leak back up into the oesophagus (or food pipe); a sweet, slightly ‘mouldy’ aroma often develops on the breath of patients who have severe cirrhosis, scarring of the liver linked with drinking too much alcohol.
‘There are numerous causes of bad breath, but if it is a chronic ongoing problem then you really should get it checked out — initially with a dentist and then with an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist, as it can be a sign of a serious underlying condition,’ says Adam Frosh, a consultant ENT surgeon at The Lister Hospital in Stevenage.
‘The problem is that people are often reluctant to seek help about bad breath due to embarrassment. The other problem is that it isn’t the person with bad breath who normally notices it — it is those around them, so detecting the problem tends to rely on the honesty of those around you.’
Mr Frosh says anything that blocks the nose — such as allergies — can lead to bad breath because it encourages breathing through the mouth, which can create a ‘perfect storm’; a dry mouth leads to bacteria in the mouth colonising it more; these in turn produce byproducts, malodorous ‘sulphurous’ compounds that become more concentrated, while ‘potentially smelly food particles aren’t washed away as normal’.
A related problem is ozena. ‘This causes a foul smell emanating from the nose, normally as a result of a fungal or bacterial infection within the nose or sinuses and this can have a knock-on effect of bad breath,’ he adds.
Treatment of bad breath usually involves regular use of mouthwash to cover the smell or addressing the root cause of the problem — such as gum infections.
But new potential treatments are emerging that could banish bad breath altogether.
Recently, scientists at Ohio State University in the U.S. discovered that eating plain yoghurt straight after a meal containing garlic effectively traps the molecules that give off the smell, sealing them inside the body rather than letting them escape via the breath.
The secret is the yoghurt’s high levels of fat and protein, both of which appear to be very good at trapping garlic odours in the gullet so they do not contaminate the breath, according to a report published in the journal Molecules in September.