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Bad Breath FAQs in the News

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At breath clinics across the nation, halitosis professionals like me are constantly fielding questions about oral odor. Some of these inquiries are old chestnuts that we hear time and again, like "What causes bad breath?" or "Why isn't alcohol-based mouthwash getting rid of my halitosis?" Others are less common, with topics ranging from canker sores and bacteria to herpes, astronauts, babies and insanity (really).

If you think I'm making this up, then take a look at some bad breath FAQs that made the news in the past month. Believe it or not, all the topics listed above appeared in recent headlines.

What is the best way to smell my own bad breath? This is a question we hear repeatedly at the California Breath Clinics. Most patients ask it because they thought they were doing it right but somehow missed the scent of their own oral odor. The key to checking your breath is not exhaling into your palms and then sniffing it -- this method only works if you're concerned about hand odor. If it's halitosis you're after, consider one of these techniques, which appeared in a multidisciplinary review of bad breath published in the International Journal of Oral Science:

1. Lick your wrist, let it dry for 10 seconds and then smell it.
2. Scrape some of the yellow gunk from the back of your tongue using a white plastic spoon, then give it a sniff.
3. After flossing, smell the tape to see if it carries an odor.
4. If you wear dentures, remove them and smell them directly.
5. Finally, if desperate, ask a close and trusted friend or family member to put their nose about four inches from your mouth and inhale, while you count to 10 out loud.

If all else fails, a breath clinician can give you a scientific diagnosis using a halimeter, a device that measures the smelly sulfur-based compounds that tinge bad breath.

Are canker sores herpes? They are not. As noted in a WebMD post recently reviewed by dentist Elverne Tonn, the two can be easily confused in memory, but in practice they're simple to tell apart. Canker sores are small, painful, white patches found inside the mouth. These little ulcers come from bacterial infections of nicks or scrapes to the gums and inner cheeks. Cold sores, on the other hand, are viral in origin and occur outside the oral cavity, usually at the corners of the mouth and under the nose. Canker sores cause bad breath, cold sores (aka fever blisters) don't.

Why don't babies get bad breath? Remarkably, many infants seem to have breath that's almost odorless, or that even smells good! Why don't our tiny tots get halitosis? Well, in truth, they do. According to an article published by Baby Center, infants occasionally get bad breath, usually from oral bacteria buildup, thrush (a yeast infection of the mouth) or even an object in the nose. To minimize a baby's risk of oral odor, try wiping her gums off after a meal. In general, though, it's true that infants are less likely to get halitosis. This is because (a) babies have no teeth for food particles to get stuck between, (b) breast milk contains phagocytes, which are white blood cells that attack odor-producing bacteria, and (c) babies salivate like crazy! A moist mouth is less likely to stink, hence the importance of using mouth-wetting specialty breath fresheners in adulthood.

I could swear I have bad breath. Am I crazy? Probably not. A Jordanian and British study, which appeared in the International Journal of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, found that patients with canker sores and halitosis were no more likely than their sweet-smelling, ulcer-free counterparts to be anxious, depressed or neurotic.

Can a woman's hormonal fluctuations cause oral odor? Unfortunately, they can. A much-publicized literature review, recently published in the journal Oral Health and Preventive Dentistry found that any change in a woman's hormones -- be it menstruation, pregnancy or menopause -- can unbalance her oral ecosystem, leading to bad breath. However, the good news is that a specialty oxygenating toothpaste or alcohol-free mouthwash can knock out the odor in seconds.

Is there any link between halitosis and serious diseases, like cancer? In fact, there is. A Swedish study that just appeared in the journal BMJ Open found that, over a 25-year period, young participants with large amounts of smelly dental plaque had a 79 percent higher risk of death compared to relatively plaque-free people. Yikes. As if we needed any more good reasons to brush, floss and gargle.

Can I be an astronaut if I have bad breath? In the U.S., the answer is "maybe." NASA's entry requirements cover height, weight, blood pressure, eyesight, physical fitness and education -- not oral odor. But if you live in China, the answer is a resounding "no." According to a piece published by the Atlantic Wire, China's first female astronaut, Liu Yang, had to overcome a number of obstacles before riding the rocket Shenzhou-9 into space on June 26. Among other requirements, she had to be halitosis-free. (For some reason, Yang also had to be a married mother without scars or foot disease.) China has a history of rejecting aspiring "taikonauts" with bad breath, as noted in a 2009 BBC News story.

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