Get close. Closer. Eww, not that close.

Bad breath can turn a romantic moment into an embarrassing faux pas. Yet thousands of people suffer from ‘halitosis,’ the medical term for breath that may be just a bit garlicky—or breath that can peel paint off the wall.

“Between 85 to 90 percent of bad breath is caused by oral bacteria's byproduct, volatile sulfur compounds,” says Dr. Sherine Apte of Dental Care STL. “Most of this bacteria is found in dental plaque, which is found both on teeth and coated on the posterior of the tongue.”

Dr. Kevin Postol, a St. Louis area family and cosmetic dentist, agrees that bacteria is the usual culprit. He adds that bad breath may be due to infections of the sinuses, tonsils or adenoids, breathing through the mouth or taking medications that cause dry mouth, certain types of pungent foods, stomach and intestinal ailments or ulcers, smoking, and drinking alcohol. All these factors may encourage bacteria to form in the mouth.

If chronic halitosis is a problem for you, start by brushing and flossing your teeth twice a day, as well as brushing or scraping your tongue. Drink plenty of water and use sugar-free breath mints or gums to help stimulate salivation, Apte suggests.

“Brush properly with a ‘power brush,’ (a toothbrush with oscillating or vibrating bristles) because they really do help. Overlap the brush onto the gums and use it slowly,” adds Jeanmarie Market, a dental hygienist with Ballas Dental Care. “Visit your dentist and dental hygienist at the very least every six months.”

When it comes to mouthwash, even professional opinions vary. “There are no studies out there that support the notion that alcohol in mouthwash is going to increase your chance of oral cancer,” Postol says, responding to a common concern about mouthwash use. “But alcohol-containing mouthwashes will cause your mouth to dry out, and there are no clinical reasons to use mouthwashes with alcohol. There are many mouthwashes now available that do not contain alcohol, and you shouldn’t give children mouthwashes that do contain alcohol because children have a tendency to swallow mouthwash.”

Market, however, cites two studies showing a correlation between alcohol-based mouthwash with oral cancers, one published in the January 2009 issue of the Australian Dental Journal and the other from the Nov. 15, 2007, issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology. “Some experts disagree (with the findings), claiming that the authors did not ask what mouthwash was used or how often, so more studies are needed,” she says.

Postol concludes by saying that it really comes down to the personal oral care of each individual. “If you’re healthy and have good oral care, you shouldn’t have bad breath.”

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