June 8, 2014 at 9:38 AM ET
No matter how fastidious you are about oral hygiene, most of us experience an occasional bout of halitosis (the scientific term for "you need a mint"). Sure, it’s embarrassing and awkward, but it’s usually temporary. “In most cases, the odor is caused by bacteria or decaying bits of food left behind on the teeth, gums and tongue,” says Dr. Guy Hanson, spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry and President at Idaho Dental Wellness Center.
In warm weather, your chances of dehydration are higher. And dehydration could mean less saliva which, according to the American Dental Association, you need to wash away all the bacteria and food.
“But there’s a lot you can do to keep your mouth healthy and control odors.” Here’s how to keep your breath smelling as fresh as a summer's breeze:
Do a breath check
If you’re too embarrassed to ask someone if your breath smells bad, try this quick test: Wash your hands, then use a finger to rub an area toward the back of your tongue. Put the saliva on the back of your hand, let it dry and take a sniff. “If you detect no odor, you’re kissable,” says Hanson.
Know which odors linger
Even if you've brushed and flossed, odors from pungent foods such as onions, garlic and coffee may be detected on your breath up to 72 hours after digestion; it depends on your individual body chemistry. So think twice about that garlicky pasta dinner if you have a job interview (or hot date) the next day!
Get a professional cleaning
“You can’t remove all the plaque that builds up on teeth yourself,” says Dr. Alice Boghosian, consumer advisor for the American Dental Association. “Plaque contains bacteria, which lead to bad breath and gum disease.” To keep your mouth healthy and odor-free, most people need cleanings and checkups at least twice a year, though some people benefit from more frequent visits (your dentist can advise what’s best for you).
Many of us aren't thorough, says Boghosian. For starters, brush twice a day for about two minutes each time. Use a soft-bristled brush (so you don’t wear down your enamel) with a pea-sized dab of fluoride toothpaste. Hold the brush at an angle, making small circles. Brush all tooth surfaces — top, inside and outside. Use the brush to gently scrape down your tongue, which also harbors bacteria. An electric brush is fine, if it's more convenient.
Floss every day
Don’t get lazy! You need to floss no matter how boring it is. “Flossing is the only way to get to bacteria in places where your toothbrush can’t reach,” says Hanson. Curve the floss into a C-shape and slide it against each tooth with an up-and-down and back-and-forth motion. If holding floss feels awkward, use pre-threaded floss holders, interdental picks or electric flossers.
Swish, if you wish
It’s fine to use a mouth rinse after brushing and flossing as a finishing touch to your routine, though be aware that it’s not a cure for bad breath. “It’s only a temporary fix,” says Hanson. “If you need to use it all the time, you should see your dentist to identify the underlying cause of mouth odor.”
Chewing stimulates the flow of saliva, which washes away food particles and bacteria, but stick with sugar-free varieties. “Products that contain sugar make bad breath worse because the bacteria feed on the sugars in the gum,” says Hanson. For bonus points with your dentist, look for those that contain xylitol, a sugar-free ingredient which inhibits the growth of cavity-causing bacteria.
Deal with dry mouth
If you have a condition called dry mouth, due to inadequate saliva flow, you’re more likely to have bad breath. Dry mouth is caused by many common medications such as antihistamines or decongestants, chemotherapy, autoimmune disorders or if you breath through your mouth, which may happen if you snore or if you have a cold or allergies that cause nasal stuffiness. Drink more water, especially after eating, avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can be drying, use mouth rinses that don’t contain alcohol and ask your dentist about prescription medications and oral lubricants.
Add it to the list of reasons to quit: “Tobacco leaves chemicals in your mouth that contribute to bad breath,” says Boghosian. You’re also more likely to suffer from gum disease and more at risk for developing oral cancer if you smoke.
Get a checkup
If you've already seen your dentist and are practicing good dental habits, it’s time to see your doctor, says Boghosian. Many common health conditions can cause bad breath including sinus infections, post nasal drip from allergies, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) and some kidney and liver diseases. Treating the underlying cause is the best way to feel better and have kissing-sweet breath.