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What is that awful smell?

Do you have bad breath? Check it out
Representational image
Representational image

Dr Gita Mathai   |   Published 16.11.22, 03:53 AM

Sometimes, when a person speaks to us, the bad smell from their mouth is enough to wake the dead. Even a child can have terrible halitosis or mouth odour. Yet, paradoxically, it is the people he or she is speaking to — the ones who don’t have halitosis — who feel self-conscious about averting their faces or stepping back. They have a fear of offending others.

Do you have bad breath? Check it out. Cup your hands over your mouth and breathe into it. Smell your breath. Lick the back of your hand, wait for the saliva to dry and smell the hand. Is it foul?

Mouthwashes, rinses and special toothpastes fly off grocery store shelves as people try to “cure” their mouth odour. This is a futile exercise as the odour returns within an hour or so unless the underlying, precipitating cause is removed. Alcohol-based mouthwashes dry the mouth and worsen the odour.

Halitosis can originate in the mouth itself. There may be poor dental hygiene and teeth with caries or cavities. Food particles get trapped in these and emit a foul odour as they degenerate and become infected. With increasing age, the teeth may splay out and gaps may form between them, trapping food particles. The teeth may become loose, leading to swollen, infected, painful, malodorous gums.

Dental check-ups should be done twice a year to fix these minor problems. Scaling and cleaning should also be done if needed.

Sinusitis, post-nasal drip, polyps in the nose, tonsillitis and infected adenoids can cause the mouth to smell. Sometimes the tonsils have crypts (little depressions) which get filled with food debris. These get infected and form white spots, which do not disappear even after rinsing the mouth. The tongue can be coated and contribute towards the odour.

Avoid vapourising mosquito repellents, agarbattis and room fresheners. This will help prevent allergic polyps in the nose. Use saline or non-absorbable steroid like fluticasone nose drops. Inhale steam three times a day to clear the passages.

Tonsillectomy can be considered along with adenoidectomy in children, if, in addition to the bad breath, more than seven infections occur in a year, there is breathing difficulty or recurrent ear infections. In adults, uncontrollable halitosis is an indication for tonsillectomy.

Children stuff all kinds of objects into their noses. It may be small stones, peas, peanuts, chalk pieces or erasers. The parents may not even notice it. This may lead to foul-smelling nasal discharge and halitosis.

At any age, cancer of the nasopharynx or in the throat or oesophagus can cause a foul smell. There may be a blood-stained discharge as well. Lymph nodes may be enlarged, providing a clue to the diagnosis.

Certain unsavoury lifestyle habits make the breath foul. Tobacco use in any form (beedis, cigarettes, chewing tobacco, gutka and Pan Parag) produces repulsive breath. This is because tobacco leaves particles in the mouth. It dries the saliva. Disagreeable odours can remain hours after use.

Mouth odour is strongly influenced by diet. Products from the breakdown of garlic, onions, dairy products and meat can be unpleasant. Fizzy sodas have a high acid content so the mouth gets dried out and smells unpleasant.

  • To tackle bad breath, first, change the diet
  • Take 30 ml of homemade curd on an empty stomach every day. Brush teeth twice a day using a soft toothbrush
  • The mouth should be thoroughly rinsed after every meal
  • Take a drop of sesame oil on the forefinger and dip the finger into table salt. Massage the teeth and gums with this once a day before sleeping
  • Chew unsweetened gum immediately after food
  • You can also chew jeera, saunf, cardamom or cloves.

If this does not help, have a dental and ENT checkup.

The writer is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore and the author of Staying Healthy in Modern India. If you have any questions on health issues please write to

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