Bad Breath and White Tongue: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Bad breath

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 lead to 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 traditional solutions for covering 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.

What causes bad breath?

Because of its health and social implications, bad breath is a reason for concern for those affected by it. Fortunately, knowing what causes it is the first step in learning how to treat and prevent 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 disease cause stomach contents to rise up into the esophagus, throat and mouth, resulting in a bad breath smell. Because regurgitating stomach contents, including highly acidic gastric juices and partially digested food, has important health implications, if you have either gastritis or acid reflux disease, see a medical professional for 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.

What about white tongue?

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 odors 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, especially fermented dairy such as some soft, pungent and hard cheeses.

What to do about it

There are several solutions to remedy bad breath, most of which consist of dietary and lifestyle changes. Overall, avoiding certain more smelly or pungent foods such as garlic, onions, leek, fermented cheeses or pickles, and giving up smoking as well as following a rigorous oral hygiene routine can make a big difference when it comes to bad breath. Halitosis caused by a medical condition such as acid reflux or liver problems requires medical attention. Find out below my 10 greatest 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.