Health Library

Breath odor

Definition

Breath odor is the scent of the air you breathe out of your mouth. Unpleasant, distinctive, or offensive breath odor is commonly called bad breath.

Alternative Names

Bad breath; Halitosis

Considerations

Some disorders will produce specific, characteristic odors to the breath.

Bad breath related to poor oral hygiene is most common and caused by release of sulphur compounds by bacteria in the mouth.

A fruity odor to the breath occurs as the body attempts to get rid of excess acetone through the breathing. This is a sign of ketoacidosis, which may occur in diabetes. It is a potentially life-threatening condition.

Breath that smells like feces can occur with prolonged vomiting, especially when there is a bowel obstruction. It may also occur temporarily if a person has a tube placed through the nose or mouth to the stomach to drain the stomach contents (nasogastric tube) in place.

The breath may have an ammonia-like odor (also described as urine-like or "fishy") in people with chronic kidney failure.

Causes

If previously normal breath turns into halitosis, causes could include:

  • Abscessed tooth
  • Alcoholism
  • Cavities
  • Dentures
  • Drugs
    • Paraldehyde
    • Triamterene and inhaled anesthetics
    • Insulin - injection
  • Food or beverages consumed (such as cabbage, garlic, raw onions, or coffee)
  • Foreign body in the nose (usually in children)
    • Often (but not always) there is a white, yellowish, or bloody discharge from one nostril
  • Gum disease (gingivitis, gingivostomatitis)
  • Impacted tooth
  • Lung infection
  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Sinusitis
  • Throat infection
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Vitamin supplements (especially in large doses)

Diseases that may be associated with breath odor (not presented in order of likelihood -- some are extremely unlikely):

Home Care

Use proper dental hygiene (especially flossing), and remember that mouthwashes are not effective in treating the underlying problem.

Fresh parsley or a strong mint are often effective ways to fight temporary bad breath. Avoid smoking. Otherwise, follow prescribed therapy to treat the underlying cause.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

  • Breath odor persists and there is not an obvious cause (such as smoking or eating odor-causing foods).
  • You have breath odor and signs of a respiratory infection, such as fever, cough, or face pain with discharge from the nose

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

Your doctor will take a medical history and perform a physical examination.

You may be asked the following medical history questions:

  • Is there a specific odor?
  • Is there a fishy smell?
  • Does the breath smell like ammonia or urine?
  • Does the breath smell like fruit or is there a sweet-chemical smell?
  • Does the breath smell like feces?
  • Does the breath smell like alcohol?
  • Have you recently eaten a spicy meal, garlic, cabbage, or other "odorous" food?
  • Do you take vitamin supplements?
  • Do you smoke?
  • Does good oral hygiene improve the odor?
  • What home care measures have you tried? How effective are they?
  • Is there a recent sore throat, sinus infection, tooth abscess, or other illness?
  • What other symptoms do you have?

The physical examination will include a thorough examination of the mouth and the nose. A throat culture may be taken if you have a sore throat or mouth sores.

In rare cases, diagnostic tests that may be performed include:

Antibiotics may be prescribed for some conditions. For an object in the nose, the doctor will use an instrument to remove it.


Review Date: 2/22/2010
Reviewed By: Jack D Rosenberg, DDS, Advanced Dental Care, Palm Beach Gardens, FL. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, M.D., MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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