What is bad breath?

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More than just a social dilemma, halitosis is a dental and medical problem, which may stem from the activity of bacteria in the mouth.

Most cases of bad breath appear to be due to the breakdown of sulphur-containing proteins by a variety of micro-organisms. These are especially the gram-negative bacteria, which produce foul-smelling gases.

In people with healthy teeth and gums, the odour usually comes from the far back region of the tongue, and grows stronger during talking. The primary cause of breath odour is VSC, which stands for "volatile sulphide compounds", chemical by-products produced by gram-negative bacteria.

When tissues are inflamed or infected, a concentration of bacteria occurs. The normal rate of tissue regeneration is greatly increased which escalates the protein levels, leading to an increase in the amount of VSC.

Research warns that VSC may have a harmful effect on the normal gum tissue. The compounds are believed to increase the vulnerability of the gum membrane to increased bacterial invasion. If VSC in the mouth can be controlled, so can most mouth odours.

Early periodontal disease may also be controlled by similar measures.

(Periodontal disease refers to a group of diseases which affect the periodontium – the tooth, the gum, the bone and the ligament which attaches the tooth to the bone.)

Read more: 

Symptoms of bad breath 

Preventing bad breath 

Causes of bad breath

Revised and reviewed by Professor Bill Evans, BDS Dip Orth(Witwatersrand). Orthodontist: South African Dental Association and Senior Specialist, Department of Orthodontics, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. February 2015.

Previously reviewed by Dr Jeff Michelson, South African Dental Association

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