8 Causes and Solutions for Bad Breath and How to Tell Someone They’ve Got It


A memory I’ll never forget…

… it was back in the 1990s and I was working at Penguin Books Australia.  Walking to my office through reception, I was stopped by the receptionist to answer a query by someone who was waiting there.

When this man spoke to me, my eyes began to water as his putrid gag-inducing breath wafted under my nose.    It was the worst smelling breath I’d ever encountered and so I backed away.

He took a step forward…

I backed away again  … and again he moved closer…

Fortunately, I just happened to be holding a memo in my hand (yes, we are talking back in the days of paper before email) and I quickly held it up in front of my face over my nose so only my eyes were peeking out.

I felt incredibly rude to be having a conversation with a piece of paper in front of my face, but I felt I had no option as retching on his shoes felt like a less polite option.

How do you tell someone that their breath is less than fresh?  And what can you do to ensure that your own breath doesn’t make anyone reach for a bucket?

Causes of Bad Breath (Halitosis)

  1. Dry mouth – did you know that during the day your mouth produces around a litre of saliva, but if you’ve been talking a lot (and not drinking water) your mouth will dry out and the little bacteria inside it start to pong.   Did you know that overnight you only produce a very small amount of saliva as you sleep (otherwise imagine a litre of drool on your pillow each morning), overnight the little bacteria in your mouth get to multiply and a mucosal coating can protect them from being washed away by your saliva.  Talking a lot will dry out your mouth, so make sure you have water at hand in meetings when you’re doing lots of talking.
  2. Poor Oral Hygiene – not enough brushing and flossing.  Food scraps stuck between teeth will start to smell (just like the food scraps in your bin start to smell), and food will increase the number of stench inducing bacteria in your mouth, and it’s actually the waste product of these bacteria feeding on the leftovers that causes the smell.
  3. Smoking, coffee, tea, garlic, alcohol, sugary foods – these are kind of obvious, but be aware that your coffee breath may be making the non-coffee drinkers around you feel queasy.  Did you know that sugar causes bacteria to multiply in your mouth?  Stay away from sugary breath mints as they are making the problem worse!
  4. Bacteria build up on your tongue – that white coating you see on your tongue, particularly towards the back – that’s bacteria growing that will start to cause a pong.
  5. Tonsil problems – if you have deeper crypts (they are the little holes in your tonsils) these can end up full of bacteria that can smell (and this is where tonsillectomy may be an appropriate treatment).  Sometimes too you can grow a tonsil stone – they are little white stones that smell really, really bad and are made up of sulfur producing bacteria an other debris from your mouth.  The minute they are gone, the smell is gone!
  6. Too much mouthwash – yes that’s right – they claim it reduces bad breath, but in fact if it has alcohol in it, will dry out your mouth (and see point 1 about a dry mouth) and can cause more bad breath as it kills not only the bad stinky bacteria, but also the good ones too.
  7. Post nasal drip – can cause a build up of that white stinky bacteria that live on the back of your tongue.
  8. Disease – some cancers, kidney failure, metabolic disorders and other diseases can also cause bad breath (as they say – see your doctor if problems persist!).

How to Get Rid of Bad Breath

  1. Dry mouth – drink more water and you can also chew sugar-free gum (sugar can cause more bacteria to build up).
  2. Poor oral hygiene – get into a regular routine of brushing and flossing morning and night.  Even if you haven’t eaten anything in the morning, brushing will dislodge the mucus coated and protected bacteria that can then be removed by your saliva.  Go for a dental checkup, have the plaque cleaned off your teeth, make sure you don’t have any dental issues that are causing the smell.
  3. Smoking, coffee, tea, garlic, alcohol, sugary foods – quit smoking – I mean really?  This should be a no brainer as it has no health benefits.  As far as coffee, tea, garlic and other digestibles go – be aware that you may need to drink more water when you consume these.  Also chewing gum helps your mouth to produce more saliva which freshens your breath.
  4. Bacteria on your tongue – scrape your tongue and remove the bacteria build up.  Do this daily. And drink lots of water!
  5. Tonsil problems – if you have endless bouts of tonsillitis, consider a tonsillectomy, that’s a solution that will sort out both the breath and the sickness.  If you look and see little white dots in your tonsils and you haven’t got tonsilitis, you may have tonsil stones, apparently an easy test to find out if you have them is to wipe a cotton bud over the tonsils then smell it, if it smells foul, you may have tonsil stones.  These can be removed by an ENT doctor.
  6. Too much mouthwash – avoid the commercial stuff and go for that fabulous cheap recipe of a salt-water gargle instead (this can also help with tonsil stones).
  7. Post nasal drip – tongue scraping is the way to go, and maybe see your doctor about the post-nasal drip if it’s something that concerns you.
  8. Disease – if you’ve tried all the above and your breath is still rancid, get thee to a doctor for a full checkup!

How to Tell Someone They Have Bad Breath

Ok, this feels really hard doesn’t it?  Particularly if it’s not an immediate family member.

But tell me …. if you had bad breath would you want to know (so that you could do something about it)?  Most people are unaware of the smell of their own breath.

We would all rather know we  have a problem, that way we can deal with it.

Think about how you would like to be told.

I mean imagine if no one ever told you about it but just talked about it behind your back?

Yes it’s an uncomfortable conversation, but one that needs to be had in a polite and direct way.

Beating around the bush doesn’t help and just offering random breath mints may not give them the hint.

So take the person aside, in private (this is not the thing to yell across the office), and gently let them know the problem with words like:

“I know I’d want to be told so I thought you’d like to know that your breath is rather noticeable at the moment, can I offer you a glass of water and a stick of gum?

Notice that I didn’t use the words “bad breath”?  You can tell politely but no need to beat them over the head with it!

You can of course feel free to forward a link to this article to them to help them solve this issue on a longer term basis!

How to Tell if You Have Bad Breath

It’s hard to know if you have bad breath and breathing into your hands isn’t the way to go.

Instead, lick the back of your hand, let if dry, then smell it and you’ll get a much better idea of what is going on with your own breath.

And if you’re constantly being offered breath mints, or people back away from you when having a conversation, it might be worth taking some of the breath freshening actions mentioned above.

8 Causes and Solutions for Bad Breath and How to Tell Someone They've Got It


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  • If really severe or also in case of body odors, I recommend chlorophylle tablets. They’re otc and work from the inside out…

  • Breath mints are very popular here and in social situations, the usual etiquette around me is to take one out for myself and ask if they would like one. Only the seriously clueless refuse as a rule and it is generally a good way because that person is left with a quasi-illusion that you were just being polite and saving them from embarrassment.

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