THE BLOG

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Thomas P. Connelly, D.D.S. Headshot

Why Alcohol Lingers On Your Breath

Posted: Updated:

Let's talk about a good summertime topic today -- "alcohol breath."

Well, OK, it's really not "exclusively" a summertime topic -- whether it's a summer bbq or wintertime cheer, alcohol is prevalent in any season. But for many people, summer bbqs, concerts, ballgames, the beach, a day at the pool, etc., all lend themselves to drinking a nice cold one, so we'll talk about it now.

Basically, the main questions people usually ask about alcohol and bad breath are threefold: Why does "alcohol breath" stay around so long, why is it so hard to get rid of and just what is that smell/terrible mouth feeling the morning after? We'll discuss all three.

To start, it's sometimes assumed that alcohol itself has no smell (or taste), and what you are smelling in that bottle of whiskey is the other ingredients, etc. I found a lot of disagreement with this online, with some experts/places saying it does have a smell (1), and others saying it doesn't (2). However, I have never personally smelled alcohol that didn't have an odor. Even vodka, which is supposed to be odorless, has a smell (to me, anyway). So put me down in the camp that smells something, even with pure alcohol.

But regardless of whether the substance itself has a smell itself or not, there is no denying that almost all alcoholic beverages have an odor. This is the first, and most obvious, source of "alcohol breath." The simple fact is that what you drink is going to hang around for awhile after you drink it. Be it coffee, cola or alcohol. So if you drink whiskey, for awhile after, you will have whiskey breath. If you drink beer, then beer breath it is. If you drink wine coolers ... you get the idea.

But truthfully, that's really not the alcohol breath most people are talking about. The actual smell from the substance you drank is short-lived, like almost all other substances you ingest. The real "alcohol breath" smell is thought to be more internal in nature, and harder to get rid of.

When alcohol enters your body, it isn't digested like most substances. It's absorbed quickly, and is seen as a toxin, so your body therefore will primarily use the liver to metabolize the alcohol. And while I don't want to give a full biology lesson here, the liver works at about a "drink an hour" pace (which is where that age-old rate of recommended consumption likely comes from). Until it's all metabolized, it's all over your body, in your blood, visiting your brain, etc (3). And, of course, because it's in your blood, it's therefore in your lungs. This is the cause of the alcohol breath that most people refer to. In simple terms, it's "in the process of being processed" alcohol, and it has a distinct, somewhat sweet, odor. You probably know the smell I'm talking about (it's also why the "alcohol smell" on someone intoxicated will smell remarkably similar, regardless if the alcohol consumed was whiskey, beer or wine coolers. Interesting huh?)

This is precisely how a breathalyzer can measure blood alcohol level for law enforcement purposes -- the device measures how much "unprocessed" alcohol there is in your body.

So that answers our first two questions -- just what is the smell, and why is it so hard to get rid of? The smell is hard to get rid of because they don't make breath mints for your lungs. Another interesting thing I came across is that like the alcohol in your blood, it's also excreted in sweat coming from your pores (4) -- literally, someone drinking heavily might "smell" of alcohol, without you even smelling their breath. (So that's why Uncle Ernie always had that peculiar smell!)

Now let's answer the third question: what is that smell the morning after? Well, as an NYC Cosmetic Dentist, I'm well-qualified to answer that one. It's plain old "bad breath." See, alcohol dries out your mouth. A lot of alcohol really dries out your mouth. And bacteria simply love a really dry mouth (devoid of all that pesky saliva), and will thrive in such an environment. That's often confounded with the fact that many people who consume a few too many might go to bed without brushing their teeth, which leaves all kinds of foodstuffs for the bacteria to interact with. And if you had something to smoke, too? That'll contribute to "morning mouth," as well.

Ok, we've gone over everything but prevention -- let's talk about that. First of all, there's very little you can do for alcohol breath coming from your lungs. You can search for miracle cures, but I'll tell you straight up -- they are spotty at best. You can chew gum for short-term coverage, but that usually smells like "alcohol gum". And you're not fooling the breathalyzer. Time -- that's it. That's your cure.

The best prevention is to keep the alcohol buildup in your body to a minimum. And stay hydrated as well. Here's my suggestion (and it's a very effective one, too) -- go one for one with a drink, then water. Have your scotch, then have a glass of water. And don't have another scotch until you finish the water. This will slow down your alcohol intake considerably, and it will also help keep you hydrated, which is very important when you are drinking. Having a cold drink is fine, just in moderation, folks.

Until next time, keep smiling.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol
http://www2.potsdam.edu/hansondj/DrivingIssues/1107196613.html
http://www.medicinenet.com/alcohol_and_nutrition/page2.htm
http://alcoholrehab.com/alcohol-rehab/smell-of-alcohol-breath-pores/

Around the Web

Self-Test for Breath Alcohol

How to Cure Alcohol Breath - wikiHow

HowStuffWorks "How Breathalyzers Work"

Bad breath: Symptoms - MayoClinic.com

Breath odor: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia

From Our Partners