Bad Breath and White Tongue: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Bad breath, scientifically known as halitosis, refers to a medical condition characterized by a foul odour coming from one’s mouth. Bad breath can be a result of numerous dietary and lifestyle habits, but can also indicate health-related problems that need to be dealt with accordingly under the careful supervision of a medical professional. The latter are however rare occurrences, often accompanied by other telling symptoms.

Bad breath is primarily a medical concern as it often indicates poor hygiene and bacterial overload at the level of the mouth, not to mention potential digestive problems or respiratory tract infections. As long as it happens occasionally, it is no reason for concern. However, having a bad mouth odour most of the time can prove both unhealthy in the long run and attract social isolation, hence the necessity to treat the condition as soon as possible.


Occasional bad breath is generally a matter of bad dietary choices. Eating whiffy foods such as garlic, onions, chives, leek, durian, hard cheeses, fish, etc. can prove particularly hard to overcome for our stomach, hence the occasional ‘insert food’ breath. It’s similar to drinking alcohol and as long as your stomach digests it, air coming out of the stomach will most likely bring the odour up close to the nose. Drinking mint tea, eating fresh lemon or cloves are traditionally employed to cover up the bad smells.

Cover up is the key verb here because as much as we’d like to fool ourselves, the stomach will release whiffs of what it’s digesting at irregular intervals until it’s done with the food. Pleasant lemon, mint, peppermint or clove aromas can only disguise previous meals, up to a certain extent. This type of halitosis is diet-dependent and will cease as soon as food is fully digested. However, halitosis-proper is a much more complex condition, brought upon by various factors, notably bacteria, infections and disease.

Because of its health and social implications, bad breath can cause great concern. Knowing what causes it is the first step in learning how to remedy it:
1) Smoking. Chewing tobacco or smoking cigarettes or cigars, especially for long periods of time will lead to teeth becoming yellow and mouth smelling bad. Smoking also causes gum disease, dry mouth and increases mouth infections and cancer risks. Passionate smokers may experience halitosis even after quitting the habit as a result of gum problems and tooth decay.

Bad breath

2) Food stuck in teeth. As innocent as this may sound, having food stuck in out teeth all the time increases the risk of it fermenting, resulting in an ideal environment for bacterial development. Brushing teeth following every meal and using dental floss is a great way to keep our mouth clean and prevent bad breath.

3) Dehydration. A dry mouth is not only an unpleasant sensation, but also a risk factor for halitosis and bad breath. Drinking plenty of water, herbal infusions, etc. keeps us hydrated and our mouth smelling normal. However, remember that coffee, caffeinated drinks and alcohol dehydrate, so monitor your intake carefully so you still have room for water.

4) Respiratory tract infections. Colds, flu, sinusitis, bronchitis, pneumonia etc. all end up in bacteria-filled mucus being eliminated from the nose and mouth (see article on how to get rid of phlegm). This, in turn, may infect the throat area, the tonsils or the nose, resulting in bad breath, despite the fact that the bacteria is dead.

5) Gastritis and gastroesophageal reflux. Both gastritis and acid reflux can bring the stomach contents up to the throat and mouth, resulting in a bad smell. Both are medical conditions that require addressing a medical professional for prescribing adequate treatment.

6) Medication. Some medicines may cause bad mouth odour. Other, more severe causes (liver failure, diabetes, etc.) are rare and often accompanied by other telling symptoms.

Very often, bad mouth odour exhibits another symptom: white tongue. While a thin white layer covering part of the tongue is normal, a thick white coating is often associated with halitosis or bad breath. This coating is made up of bacteria living especially towards the back of the tongue as well as in between gums and teeth causing the bad odours associated with bad breath (halitosis).

However, in some people, the white pellicle on the tongue may contain fungi or result from antibiotic use. It can also indicate a Candida infection at the mouth level. A thin, white, healthy-looking coating on the tongue indicated an increase in tongue dead cells (called debris). Dairy products also contribute to an increase in the spread and consistency of the coating.

There are several solutions to remedy the issue of bad breath, most of which consist of dietary and lifestyle changes. Halitosis caused by a medical condition such as acid reflux or liver problems requires medical attention. Here are 10 great tips to deal with bad breath:

1) Brush teeth following every meal and use dental floss as often as possible.
2) Clean your tongue with the back of the toothbrush or a tongue scraper.
3) Reduce meat and dairy intake.
4) Keep hydrated and avoid coffee, caffeinated beverages and alcohol.
5) Watch out for certain medicines, cortisone and antihistamines which may cause bad breath.
6) Quit smoking.
7) Treat existing gum and tooth problems.
8) Manage your intake of whiffy foods (garlic, onions, durian).
9) Use mouthwash daily for better hygiene, preferably alcohol-free with antibacterials (chlorhexidine ).
10) Eat healthy: natural and varied.

Other things you can do to improve, but not necessarily treat breath odor include chewing cloves, fennel seeds, cinnamon sticks, drinking peppermint tea, eating lemon or other citrus fruit, chewing sugarless gum or eating hard foods (toast, for example) to clean the tongue.

2 Replies to “Bad Breath and White Tongue: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment”

  1. My tongue is always coated with white and a bad smell comes from my mouth. What can I do? Please tell me a good medicine name for prevention of this disease.

    • Hello, Ontimitta. My advice is to make an appointment with a doctor to find out what causes the white tongue and the bad smell. For the symptoms to disappear, you need to treat the underlying condition causing them. And you can’t treat the condition if you don’t know what it is. It is important to tell the doctor about every symptom you’ve been experiencing since the white tongue and bad smell appeared. Any detail, as insignificant as it may seem, can guide the doctor towards the correct diagnosis faster. So see a doctor. Wishing you lots of health.

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