Halitosis (bad breath)

Halitosis (otherwise known as bad breath) is the general term for an unpleasant smell surfacing from the mouth. It can be caused by bacteria, and may occur due to poor oral hygiene or an illness.

  1. Causes an unpleasant smell, stemming from the mouth
  2. Most commonly caused by poor oral hygiene
  3. Improving oral hygiene can help to tackle it

Getting help and advice for bad breath is simple with our online consultation service. Book an appointment to speak to one of our doctors through our secure video platform.


Halitosis (bad breath)
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What is halitosis?

Halitosis is the medical term for bad breath. It can be categorised as either pathological or non-pathological. Non-pathological halitosis is often temporary, and caused by a reaction in the mouth to normal occurrences (in the morning when bacteria has formed overnight or after eating a meal). Pathological halitosis is when symptoms are caused by an infection or an oral condition such as gingivitis. 

Who gets halitosis?

In most cases, halitosis is caused by lifestyle factors such as smoking, which causes a stale smell of tobacco and a reduced level of saliva. Consuming certain foods, such as spices and garlic, can also lead to halitosis. Poor oral hygiene is the main cause of prolonged halitosis, as it causes an increased level of bacteria in the mouth, which releases chemicals when it breaks down food. It is thought that there are around 15 types of bacteria associated with halitosis. 

Most people will experience halitosis in some form, even if it’s only temporary. Many people may have halitosis but not realise, as it can develop slowly over time (and other people may be reluctant to point it out). It can also be a difficult condition to speak to a doctor about for some people, as they might find it embarrassing.

What you can do to help halitosis

Gum disease, such as gingivitis and periodontitis, can be accompanied by halitosis. So if you have bad breath which doesn’t improve after avoiding certain foods, it’s advisable to speak to a doctor or a dentist for further advice. They may advise specific treatments, such as antibacterial mouthwash or toothpaste, and provide guidance on maintaining good oral hygiene to help improve symptoms.

Halitosis isn’t a serious health concern, but it can cause feelings of self-consciousness. People who are overly concerned about the condition may try to conceal it through excessive cleaning routines or by chewing gum. 

Treatment for halitosis depends on what the cause is. Usually, avoiding foods which leave a smell, such as garlic and onions, and brushing your teeth twice a day, can help. Using a mouthwash and flossing regularly may also ease symptoms. 

When bad breath is accompanied by other symptoms, such as oral pain, it can sometimes be a sign of an underlying gum condition. If symptoms don’t improve after making changes to your hygiene routine, you should seek advice from a professional. Gum diseases can sometimes lead to the formation of abscesses, which will often need treatment with antibiotics.

Can I get advice about halitosis online?

You can speak to a doctor online about halitosis through our video consultation facility. Click below to book an appointment at a time convenient for you, and get the advice you need on maintaining good oral hygiene, or whether you should go to a dentist for further help.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

What are the causes of halitosis?

Bad breath can be fairly common, and most people will experience it occasionally at particular times of the day or after eating certain foods. For example, many people might experience it just after waking up in the morning. It can also develop when someone smokes, or after eating foods such as garlic and following alcohol consumption. 

The smell is caused by an increased presence of bacteria in the mouth, which is needed to break down food debris. The bacteria produces chemicals that create an unpleasant smell. 

Oral diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis can cause halitosis. Having a dry mouth can also inhibit the mouth’s ability to clean itself, as there is less saliva present.

How is halitosis diagnosed?

Halitosis is usually diagnosed by a doctor smelling the air from both the mouth and nose. Odour from the mouth indicates that the problem is oral, whereas if it’s from the nose then the issue is in the nose or sinuses. 

A doctor will likely suggest not eating foods that could trigger bad breath to see if symptoms improve. It’s a condition that can vary considerably, and may be influenced by many factors, but a doctor or a dentist may look for signs of gum disease, such as gingivitis, if other symptoms, such as oral pain, are present.

Will I need tests?

Not usually. A doctor will typically ask you about your oral hygiene practices, assess the smell, and may look for signs of gum disease. 

In some cases, you might need to have tests if a doctor suspects that you have a stomach infection or an ulcer, or if you have heartburn.

How is halitosis managed?

Changing your oral hygiene habits is likely to be the first course of action a doctor or a dentist will recommend. This might include quitting smoking if you smoke, cutting down on alcohol, and ensuring you follow hygiene practices such as brushing your teeth twice a day, using mouthwash, and flossing your teeth.

It’s advisable to avoid foods that can cause halitosis if these are known to result in problems, such as onions and garlic. If halitosis has been caused by dry mouth, drinking more fluids can help.

To help improve symptoms, a dentist may suggest using a tongue cleaner, or specific antimicrobial toothpastes and mouthwashes.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is halitosis treated?

Halitosis is mostly treated by making adjustments to oral hygiene. It is important to brush your teeth twice a day, and to use floss and mouthwash regularly. Going to your dentist routinely for check-ups can also help to stop the build-up of bacteria between the teeth and gums, which may lead to halitosis.

If halitosis is being caused by an infection or an abscess, a doctor may recommend prescription treatment, such as antibiotics, to help clear the infection.

How long will it take for me to recover?

Provided there are no underlying conditions present, if you improve your oral hygiene and follow the advice of your dentist, you should notice a change in a matter of days, if not right away. 

Abscesses and gum disease can take a little longer to treat. A course of antibiotics for an abscess may last for a week or two, depending on the treatment used and the severity of the infection.

Can I consult a doctor about halitosis online?

Yes. To get advice on how to deal with halitosis and speak to a doctor about what might be causing it, our video consultation service provides a convenient means to do so privately. You can book an appointment at a suitable time for you.

Page last reviewed:  15/06/2020

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