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Bad Breath (Halitosis)
Halitosis is the technical term for bad breath. Learn more about what can cause it, as well as potential treatments.

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What Is Bad Breath?

Bad breath (halitosis, or oral malodor) is when an unpleasant odor emanates from the mouth.

What Causes Bad Breath?

Many things can cause bad breath. Sometimes it’s the result of the foods you eat. Sometimes it can be caused by something more serious like a disease.

Mouth Conditions

Most cases of bad breath are caused by conditions in the mouth. Bad odor from the mouth can be caused by:

  • poor oral hygiene (This is the most common cause of bad breath.)
  • dental problems like gum disease, cavities, and abscessed teeth
  • dentures
  • certain foods and drinks like garlic, onions, and coffee
  • tobacco products
  • alcohol
  • dry mouth
  • sinus conditions
  • throat infections
  • lung infections
  • certain medications like insulin injections, Paraldehyde, and Triamterene
  • vitamin supplements
  • a foreign body in the nose (usually in children)


Some of the diseases that can cause bad breath include:

  • diabetic ketoacidosis, a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when you don’t have enough insulin to process the sugars in your body
  • some cancers
  • gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
  • liver disease
  • kidney disease
  • ozena, a disease that causes the bony ridges and mucous membranes of the nose to deteriorate
  • Zenker’s diverticulum, a rare disease where a pouch forms at the back of the throat

Some types of unpleasant breath odors may indicate certain health conditions.

Fruity Breath Odor

A fruity breath odor may indicate ketoacidosis. This is a serious condition. Call your doctor immediately if your breath is persistently fruity.

Feces Breath Odor

Breath that smells like feces can be caused by prolonged vomiting, especially if you have a blockage in the bowels. It can also be caused by a tube inserted through the nose or mouth and into the stomach to empty the contents of the stomach.

Ammonia Breath Odor

Breath that smells like ammonia or urine or has a fish smell can be a sign of kidney failure.

Who Is at Risk for Bad Breath?

Certain factors can increase your risk of having bad breath, including:

  • having poor oral hygiene
  • smoking or chewing tobacco
  • drinking alcohol
  • eating pungent foods such as garlic and onions

What Are the Symptoms of Bad Breath?

The symptom of bad breath is an unpleasant or foul odor coming from your mouth. It can be difficult to assess the smell of your own breath. You may need to ask a friend, family member, or doctor to tell you if your breath smells bad.

How Is Bad Breath Diagnosed?

A doctor will usually diagnose bad breath by smelling your breath. Your doctor may perform exams or tests to diagnose the cause of your bad breath. Common exams and tests include:

  • dental exam to detect gum disease or tooth decay
  • physical examination of your mouth and nose to check for abnormalities
  • throat culture to detect bacteria

The following tests may be done in rare cases:

  • blood tests to diagnose conditions such as kidney failure and diabetes
  • esophagogastroduodenoscopy, where a camera is inserted down your throat to examine the lining of the esophagus, stomach and duodenum.
  • X-rays of the abdomen or chest to detect stomach or lung problems

How Is Bad Breath Treated?

The treatment for bad breath depends on the cause of the unpleasant odor. Treatments may include the following.

Home Treatment

Many cases of bad breath can be treated at home. Home treatment consists of:

  • practicing good hygiene by brushing your teeth and cleaning your tongue at least twice a day and flossing your teeth at least once a day
  • avoiding tobacco products
  • avoding foods that have pungent odors, such as garlic, onions, and coffee
  • not drinking alcohol
  • eat parsley and mint to temporarily mask bad breath

Dental Treatment

Your dentist will treat any dental infections you have and clean your teeth to remove plaque buildup. Infections may include cavities, abscesses, and gum disease. Your dentist may also recommend a prescription antibacterial toothpaste and mouthwash to reduce odor-causing bacteria in your mouth.

Medical Treatment

Your doctor will treat any underlying medical conditions that are causing your bad breath.


Many cases of bad breath are temporary and go away with home treatment. The prognosis for bad breath that is caused by underlying medical conditions varies according to the disorder or disease.


There are certain things you can do to reduce your risk of getting bad breath. These include:

  • practicing good oral hygiene
  • visiting your dentist regularly
  • avoiding tobacco products
  • minimizing alcohol consumption
  • avoiding foods and beverages that cause bad breath
  • drinking plenty of water
  • eating plenty of fiber to avoid constipation
Written by: Holly McGurgan
Edited by:
Medically Reviewed by:
Published: Dec 15, 2014
Published By: Healthline Networks, Inc.
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