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12 Things Your Bad Breath Is Trying to Tell You

Got dragon breath (again)? Here's what your halitosis could mean for your health.

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iStock/Anna Bryukhanova

You’re dehydrated

Dehydration is one of the leading bad breath causes, other than poor dental hygiene, according to the Mayo Clinic. Not drinking enough water means food (and the bacteria that feed on it) hangs out in your mouth longer, breeding and heightening the stench. Fortunately, the fix is as simple as the problem: Drink up! Plain H2O is best, but doctors add that sugar-free gum or candies can also help stimulate saliva flow.

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You have a serious illness

Bad breath may smell equally stinky to our untrained noses, but according to researchers at the University of Colorado in Boulder, not all bad breath is created equally. The presence of certain, ahem, gasses in your mouth can indicate serious diseases that are also bad breath causes. For instance, excess methylamine may signal liver and kidney disease, ammonia may be a sign of renal failure, elevated acetone levels can indicate diabetes, and nitric oxide levels can be used to diagnose asthma, according to the scientists. A separate study found that a certain mix of bad breath gasses can even indicate malignant throat cancer. You can’t tell just from a sniff test, but if you have chronic bad breath, it might be worth getting a more sensitive test done in your doctor’s office. These are the 13 silent signs of oral cancer you should never ignore.

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You’re exercising outdoors too much

Athletes have a higher proportion of breathing problems than the average population, according to a surprising study published by the European Respiratory Society. Of people who exercised outdoors, about one in ten experienced some type of breathing problem like asthma, wheezing, and dry mouth, with cyclists being the most affected―nearly 50 percent! The problem, according to the researchers, is the outdoor air, one of the more surprising bad breath causes. While a breath of fresh air is certainly good for you, too much cold air in the winter dries out your mouth, and in warmer months, pollen and pollution wreak havoc. The end result can be bad breath related to allergies, nasal drainage, or chronic dry mouth. This doesn’t mean you should quit exercising—far from it!—but rather that you might want to limit your time exercising outdoors when it’s very cold, during allergy season, or in polluted areas.

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You’re at risk for heart disease

Gum disease and heart disease are closely linked, with gingivitis being an early warning sign of cardiovascular problems, according to a study done by the International & American Association for Dental Research. And one of the major signs of gum disease is bad breath. Treat your gum disease and not only do you ditch the noxious mouth fumes, but you also improve your heart health. Don’t miss these 10 early signs of gum disease you’re probably ignoring.

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You have tonsillitis

One of the hallmarks of sore-throat disease is persistent bad breath. The same bacteria that give you bad breath are the ones that also infect your tonsils, giving you recurrent sore throats. Tonsillectomy, a surgery that removes the two glands in the back of your throat, can help treat the sickness and bad breath, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, Head and Neck Surgery.

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You’re at risk for pre-term delivery

Pregnant women need to pay particular attention to bad breath, according to the American Academy of Periodontology. Women with gum disease—often signified by halitosis—are more likely to have premature or low birth weight babies. This is why it’s so important to stay on top of your dental hygiene and checkups when you’re expecting, the group says.

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You have a stomach ulcer

When you think ulcers you probably think of terrible stomach pain, problems eating and heartburn. But you may be overlooking another common symptom of the malady: bad breath. Helicobacter pylori, the bacteria known to cause stomach ulcers and also responsible for a large proportion of gastric cancers, can also make your mouth mega malodorous, according to research published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology. Here are 9 more things bad breath can reveal about your health.

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You’re overweight

You can now add bad breath to the list of health problems caused by being overweight, according to a study from Tel Aviv University. The researchers found that the more overweight a person is, the more likely their breath will smell unpleasant to others. They’re still investigating why this is the case. It may have to do with biological dysfunction or it may be another example of the social stigma endured by the obese.

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You need to eat more yogurt

Bad breath, or halitosis, is caused by an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in your mouth. But do you know what else is packed with bacteria? Yogurt! The humble dairy snack is a microbial superhero that can help fight off the stinky germs in your mouth and replace them with breath-friendly bugs. Eating yogurt daily for eight weeks reduced the amount of hydrogen sulfide and other stinky bacteria by 80 percent, according to a study published by the International & American Association For Dental Research. Here are more surprising foods that give you seriously bad breath.

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You need to pop fewer mints

Breath mints may promise fresher breath but that promise is fleeting, according to research from the American Chemical Society. That minty fresh scent is likely only masking the underlying odor problem and, even worse, the sugar in regular mints can feed stinky bacteria, making your problem worse. Skip the mints and focus on brushing and flossing, the researchers say. If you must indulge, a few ingredients like xylitol and magnolia tree bark are proven to kill bad bacteria, so look for sugar-free products containing those. Plus, check out these foods that will freshen your breath almost instantly.

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You’re OD’ing on the mouthwash

Mouthwash is another product marketed to reduce bad breath that may actually make the problem worse. Most mouthwashes temporarily destroy bacteria—which may sound great until you realize they’re getting rid of all your oral bacteria. As your mouth repopulates you’re at risk for a bad bacteria overgrowth, according to experts. Plus the alcohol in mouthwash can dry out your mouth, another of our bad breath causes. Lastly, many people use mouthwash to mask poor dental care.

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You need to brush and floss more

Okay, so this isn’t the most surprising thing on this list, but bad dental hygiene is the most likely reason behind your bad breath. “Halitosis is often the first sign of poor oral hygiene that may eventually lead to further periodontal problems,” said Walter A. Bretz, DDS, PhD, an adjunct associate professor in the department of cariology and comprehensive care at New York University College of Dentistry and the lead author of a large-scale study on the subject. “A good way to prevent periodontal disease and tooth decay is through at-home oral hygiene care and routine dental visits.” So make sure you’re brushing and flossing daily. Don’t miss these 13 other secrets your dentist wishes you knew.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen, BS, MS, has been covering health, fitness, parenting, and culture for many major outlets, both in print and online, for 15 years. She's the author of two books, co-host of the Self Help Obsession podcast, and also does freelance editing and ghostwriting. She has appeared in television news segments for CBS, FOX, and NBC.