Bad breath? It's an embarrassing problem, but one that can be prevented with proper oral hygiene, says Geeta Padmanabhan

The sabha hall is packed. As the music rises and swirls around, you lean over to ask: “Is that Bahudaari?” Your neighbour gasps, turns her head away. Odds are, it is not because you got the raga wrong, but because you forgot your oral hygiene rules before you set out. You just let out a mouthful of stale air.

Bad breath (BB) or halitosis can land you in a social soup. Halitosis is an odd problem — the worst-case sufferers are usually the ones who don't know they're sending out stink signals when they speak. Doctors say it's because our brain gets used to personal scent even as it repels others. You really have to get rid of it, unless, of course, you opt for a not-so-close circle of friends or prefer a room/office space far removed from the madding crowd. Loner, are you?

Find the “truth” about your stinky breath. “Think of your tongue as a shaggy carpet and your mouth as a mobile chemistry lab,” says Dr. Harold Katz, bacteriologist and founder of California Breath Clinic. “Bacteria found in the mouth get trapped under the surface of the tongue and cause bad breath.” To detect BB, smell your breath in cupped palms. Or, do a tongue check. A pink tongue means fresh breath. If it's white and scaly, you have bad news, says Dr. Katz. Before anyone notices, lick the back of your hand or wrist. Sniff it after the saliva dries. Does it smell bad? If you're the “clean” type, swab your tongue with a cotton ball or q-tip, smell the cotton. Eeyew! Check if the cotton has turned yellow. That's a sure BB signpost. If you smell the same odour over a period of time, you could have severe halitosis. So floss (pull a thread in between) teeth at the back of your mouth and sniff the twine. Be brave. Ask your dear ones if you have a surround-smell problem. You'll know why colleagues wrinkle their nose.

Easy to follow regimen

Halitosis may kill social life, but it's not life-threatening. No matter how bad your breath is, you can cure it — quickly and naturally — with a simple “to-do/not-to-do” regimen, without going “glug-glug” like the guy in the mouthwash ad. “A dry mouth (lack of salivation) is the commonest reason for BB,” said Dr. Raji Venkatesh, asking us to stay hydrated. The oxygen in saliva is a natural enemy for the offensive bacteria. Popping a sugar-free mint or chewing gum aren't bad ideas, but they're only temporary fixes. They mask the smell, don't kill the anti-social bacteria.

“Stomach problems of any kind — hyperacidity, worm infestation, infection or severe indigestion can cause halitosis. So consult a doctor,” said Dr. Raji. Obviously, watching what you eat isn't only for the waistline. Dr. Katz suggests that you take less of garlic, onions, spicy curry and fish. Acidic beverages such as beer, wine, coffee and soda can also be a trigger. Limit chocolate, candy and sweets as well, he said. The sugar helps bacteria reproduce in your mouth.

All in the kitchen

Find weapons in your kitchen. Green tea has anti-bacterial properties that knock out the stink. Cinnamon contains essential oils that fight many types of oral bacteria. Crisp fruits and vegetables have dual bad-breath-busting benefits. Chewing them produces saliva, and their firm texture helps scrub away bacteria. “I tell my patients to load up on fruits and other foods high in Vitamin C, they help kill smelly bacteria naturally,” says Dr. Katz. Some 10 per cent of bad breath cases are a symptom of chronic sinus or respiratory infection, liver and kidney disorder, cancer or diabetes. These diseases can release chemicals into the body that result in bad breath. So, clean your teeth and tongue well. Do it after every meal. Gargle frequently with water mixed with a few drops of lemon. “Lemon juice keeps out halitosis-causing bacteria,” says Dr. Raji. Use apple cider vinegar for a highly valuable mouthwash. Once in a while brush with a pinch of baking soda on your toothbrush. The theory is it changes the pH (acidity) level in the mouth and reduces growth of smell-causing bacteria. Chew herbs for fresheners. De-stress. Stress and anger can dry out your mouth.

All too much? Remember this snippet. A magazine asked its readers to write a caption for a photograph in which a huge man in the foreground seemed to be saying something while a big crowd behind edged away. The winning entry: “Ok, ok, I'll change my mouthwash!”

SIMPLE SOLUTIONS

* Most people can't smell their breath. So speak up if your friend/relative has BB.

* Pop a single clove when you leave home. Clove has traditionally fought teeth problems.

* Go for de-worming once in three months if you are non-vegetarian, and once in six months if you are vegetarian/vegan.

* Drink water before you go to bed and after waking up to prevent stinky morning breath.

Keywords: Oral hygiene