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Bad breath? Break free -- and how to tell a friend

By Danielle Dellorto, CNN
Think of your tongue as a shaggy carpet and your mouth as a mobile chemistry lab.
Think of your tongue as a shaggy carpet and your mouth as a mobile chemistry lab.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bad breath easier to beat than you might think
  • Best way to check your own breath: Lick back of your hand, let it dry, then smell
  • Expert: Bad breath typically not a sign of bad hygiene
  • To fight it: Drink water, chew sugar-free gum to produce saliva, which beats bacteria

(CNN) -- Ida Alvarez avoided close conversations. She was afraid of what someone might tell her. She was pretty sure she had really bad breath.

"It is such an embarrassing situation," Alvarez, 31, of Los Angeles told CNN. "There was always a bitter taste in my mouth, but I didn't want to ask anyone if my breath smelled bad because I was afraid of a negative reply."

Her keep-a-distance approach might be a good strategy given most of our natural reaction to bad breath, known medically as halitosis. It can wilt your love life, and even cost you that new job, according to surveys.

However, the 90 million Americans who suffer from bad breath -- and the innocent bystanders -- will be glad to know that the unwanted odor is easier to get rid of than you might think.

Do you have it?

The first thing to do is determine if your breath is fresh or foul. Most people with stinky breath aren't even aware they have it, because the brain becomes acclimated to one's own personal scent. The good news is there are ways to self-diagnose.

Start with a tongue check. What color is it? A pink, shiny tongue indicates fresh breath. However, a tongue that's white and scaly in appearance can indicate bad breath, according to Dr. Harold Katz, bacteriologist and founder of the California Breath Clinic.

2009: What to do about bad breath
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Smelling your own breath in cupped hands is not the best way to check for halitosis, Katz says. Instead, lick the back of your hand, let it dry for a few seconds, and then smell the surface.

Alvarez's fears of bad breath had her so self-conscious she avoided kissing her significant other. "I would brush my teeth but was still worried he'd think I was gross."

It's important to remember that bad breath is typically not a sign of bad dental hygiene. "It usually has nothing to do with teeth," Katz says. "You can have good teeth, rotten teeth or no teeth at all and still have bad breath. It has to do with the tongue."

Think of your tongue as a shaggy carpet and your mouth as a mobile chemistry lab. More than 600 types of bacteria are found in the average mouth. Many of those bacteria get trapped under the surface of the tongue and cause the bad breath.

How to fight it

Fighting the smelly bacteria is like preparing for battle.

Stay hydrated. A dry mouth is a breeding ground for offensive-smelling bacteria on your tongue.

"Saliva has oxygen in it, which makes it a natural enemy for the foul-smelling bacteria," Katz says. "They can't live in the presence of oxygen, so drinking water and chewing sugar-free gum can produce saliva and naturally get rid of bad breath."

Popping a sugar-free mint or using mouthwash aren't bad ideas, but they're only temporary fixes. They mask the smell but won't kill the bacteria that cause the odor.

And watching what you eat doesn't just apply to your waistline. Some foods can trigger bad breath. If you're worried, limit consumption of foods like garlic, onions, curry, and fish. Acidic beverages like beer, wine, coffee and soda can also be a trigger. They all contain foul-odor-releasing compounds that get absorbed into your bloodstream. The odor is given off in your breath until all of the food is out of your body. Limit chocolate candy and sweets, as well. The sugar helps bacteria to reproduce in your mouth, leading to bad breath.

On the flip side, there are foods that fix bad breath, Katz says.

Green tea has anti-bacterial properties that knock out the stink. Cinnamon contains essential oils that kill many types of oral bacteria. Try adding fresh cinnamon to your morning toast or oatmeal, or adding a stick to flavor your tea.

Eating crisp fruits and vegetables, such as celery or apples, offers dual bad-breath-busting benefits. Chewing them will produce more saliva in your mouth, and the firm texture will also help scrub away bacteria, according to Katz. Melons and berries also help.

"I tell my patients to load up on berries, melons, oranges, and other foods high in Vitamin C, because they help kill smelly bacteria naturally," Katz says.

If you modify your lifestyle and eating habits yet bad breath persists, contact your health care provider to make sure it isn't a sign of a more serious medical condition. Roughly 10% of bad breath cases are a symptom of chronic sinus or respiratory infection, reflux disease, liver and kidney disorder, cancer or diabetes. These diseases can release chemicals into the body that result in bad breath.

How to break bad breath news

Don't forget that most people can't smell their own breath. So if you detect a friend's bad breath, you should speak up.

Granted, telling a a close colleague, friend or lover that his or her breath is offensive can be awkward for everybody involved. But it is the right thing to do. After all, if you were the one with stinky breath, wouldn't you want to know?

"My mom was the one who finally told me my breath smelled bad. She couldn't hold back," Alvarez says. "It embarrassed me at first, but I'm happy she said something, because now I watch what I eat, drink more water and use products to get rid of it."

Patricia Napier-Fitzpatrick, founder of The Etiquette School of New York, acknowledges the delicacy of the issue, but says speaking up is all part of having good manners. "If people are talking about them behind their back, it turns into a worse situation. If you respect the person, it's your duty to tell them."

There are two possible approaches, according to Fitzpatrick.

Sit down with your friend in a private setting and be direct. Begin the conversation by telling them you believe there is something they would want to know and that you aren't sure they are aware of the problem.

Or, if you know the person is sensitive, you may need to be more cautious about your approach. Delicately bring up the issue by carrying mints with you. Take one yourself first and then offer one to your friend who has bad breath. If the person doesn't accept, Fitzpatrick says it is acceptable to offer a nudge by simply saying, "I think you should."

First impressions, professional and personally, are long-lasting. So don't let bad breath wilt your image. In most cases, taking simple steps to control the chemistry lab living inside your mouth will keep you smelling fresh.

 
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