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Give Bad Breath the Brush-Off

It happens to the best of us. At one time or another, we suffer from bad breath, also called halitosis. While it's rarely a sign of a major medical problem, bad breath can cause embarrassment, low self-esteem and even social isolation.

The American Dental Association (ADA) says most bad breath starts in the mouth, home to millions of bacteria that live mainly at the back of the tongue. When these microbes process debris from food, saliva, postnasal drip and other sources, the result is a foul-smelling sulfur compound.

Failing to brush and floss regularly is the number one no-no. Brushing and flossing once a day will help prevent tooth decay. Brushing more frequently than that may help keep breath fresher. The tongue should be brushed, too, since many bacteria collect there.

Bacteria and gum disease

Bits of food left in your mouth from poor dental hygiene encourage bacteria to grow. These bacteria can cause gum disease. Visit your dentist every six months for routine cleaning and to rule out or treat gum disease. Other illnesses can cause bad breath, too, including ailments of the esophagus and stomach.

Certain foods such as garlic and onions can cause bad breath, as can certain highly spiced foods such as pastrami and kimchee. Alcoholic beverages can cause bad breath. Using tobacco products also causes bad breath.

Another bad-breath culprit is a dry mouth. Saliva aids digestion and helps wash away excess food and bacteria. Without enough saliva, a smelly mouth can get smellier. Stress, alcohol, tobacco, breathing through the mouth, some medications (for example, many anti-depressants) and not drinking enough water can cause or worsen dry mouth.

If your mouth is dry, the ADA says, your dentist can recommend over-the-counter saliva substitutes. While some folks use mouthwash, gum or mints to help a dry mouth -- or bad breath, in general -- most of these products just mask the odor for a while and do little to solve the problem.

It is important to know that trying to fight bad breath with gum or mints can greatly increase the risk for getting tooth decay, unless "sugar-free" chewing gums and/or mints are used.  Keep in mind, however, that many of these products are sugar-free only in the sense that they don't contain refined sugar, the kind that causes tooth decay. Many products  typically contain complex sugars, for example, fructose, which has about the same amount of calories as sucrose-containing ordinary gums and mints. So, if you use sugar-free gum and mints, you could still be consuming the same calories, even as you significantly lower your risk for tooth decay. An alternative is to use gums and mints that contain artificial sweeteners, which are essentially non-caloric.

The best remedy is to maintain a clean mouth through careful brushing and flossing.

What to do

How to minimize bad breath:

1. Brush your teeth and tongue, and floss regularly, especially after meals.

2. Drink plenty of water to keep your mouth from getting dry.

3. Avoid tobacco, which tends to dry the mouth and produce a foul smell.

4. Visit your dentist every six months for cleaning.

5. When using a mouthwash, keep it in your mouth for 30 seconds for it to be most effective.

6. If you have dentures or braces, follow your dentist's instructions on how to keep them clean.