What causes bad breath? – Mel Rosenberg


There is a curse that has plagued humanity
since ancient times. The Greeks fought it by chewing
aromatic resins, while the Chinese resorted to egg shells. In the ancient Jewish Talmud, it’s even considered
legal grounds for divorce. This horrible scourge is halitosis,
otherwise known as bad breath. But what causes it,
and why is it so universally terrifying? Well, think of some of the worst
odors you can imagine, like garbage, feces or rotting meat. All of these smells come from the activity
of microorganisms, particularly bacteria, and, as disgusting as it may sound, similar bacteria live in the moisture-rich
environment of your mouth. Don’t panic. The presence of bacteria in your body
is not only normal, it’s actually vital
for all sorts of things, like digestion and disease prevention. But like all living things,
bacteria need to eat. The bacteria in your mouth
feed off of mucus, food remnants, and dead tissue cells. In order to absorb nutrients
through their cell membranes, they must break down the organic matter
into much smaller molecules. For example, they’ll break proteins
into their component amino acids and then break those down even further
into various compounds. Some of the foul-smelling
byproducts of these reactions, such as hydrogen sulfide and cadaverine, escape into the air and waft their way
towards unsuspecting noses. Our sensitivity to these odors
and interpretation of them as bad smells may be an evolutionary mechanism
warning us of rotten food and the presence of disease. Smell is one of our most intimate
and primal senses, playing a huge role
in our attraction to potential mates. In one poll, 59% of men and 70% of women said they wouldn’t go on a date
with someone who has bad breath, which may be why Americans alone spend $1 billion a year
on various breath products. Fortunately, most bad breath
is easily treated. The worst smelling byproducts come from
gram-negative bacteria that live in the spaces
between gums and teeth and on the back of the tongue. By brushing and flossing our teeth, using antibacterial mouthwash at bedtime, gently cleaning the back of the tongue
with a plastic scraper and even just eating a healthy breakfast, we can remove many of these bacteria
and their food sources. In some cases,
these measures may not be enough due to dental problems,
nasal conditions, or rarer ailments, such as liver disease
and uncontrolled diabetes. Behaviors like smoking
and excessive alcohol consumption also have a very recognizable odor. Regardless of cause, the bad smell almost
always originates in the mouth and not the stomach
or elsewhere in the body. But one of the biggest challenges lies in actually determining
how our breath smells in the first place, and it’s unclear why. It may be that
we’re too acclimatized to the smell inside
our own mouths to judge it. And methods like cupping your hands
over your mouth, or licking and smelling your wrist
don’t work perfectly either. One study showed
that even when people do this, they tend to rate the smell subjectively according to how bad
they thought it was going to be. But there’s one simple,
if socially difficult, way of finding out how your breath smells: just take a deep breath and ask a friend.

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