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THE FRONT LINE – What to do if you’ve got a skunk in your mouth – Bad breath – or just worrying about it …

By Celeste Biever
2 February 2002

What to do if you’ve got a skunk in your mouth – Bad breath – or just worrying about it – is the bane of many people’s lives. Celeste Biever seeks out some possible solutions to malodorous mouths.

If you’ve been sprayed by a skunk, the traditional remedy is to douse yourself with tomato juice to remove the stench.

Coincidentally, the volatile sulphur compounds that make a skunk’s spray so vile are also present in a human mouth. So could a Bloody Mary be a remedy for halitosis?

Sadly, it doesn’t quite work like that. Tomatoes and vodka themselves contain substances that promote bad breath, and there are plenty of non-sulphur compounds that contribute to bad breath.

Even so, identifying odoriferous chemicals in the mouth and then combating or avoiding them remains the best way of fighting bad breath.

The “halitosis process” begins with proteins from dairy products, meat, poultry and fish, which collect in the mouth. Bacteria, which are concentrated on the tongue and in gaps between the teeth, feed on the protein, breaking it down into amino acids to obtain energy. Then more bacteria convert the amino acids into foul-smelling compounds, including volatile sulphur compounds, skatole, indole, hydrogen sulphide and cadaverine.

This makes brushing the teeth and tongue and flossing before a big date top priorities, particularly if you have craggy teeth with spaces in which bacteria can lurk. This is why the elderly often suffer from halitosis, because they tend to have more gaps between their teeth than younger people.

The drinking of water can also help. It promotes a healthy salivary flow, combating bad breath with its naturally antibiotic properties. The water should be swirled around the mouth for as long as possible to dislodge food lurking in crevices.

Some people may be tempted to reach for chewing gum. It stimulates saliva production, which helps to some extent, but do not be fooled by the minty flavour – it just masks the odour.

When you eventually face the moment of close proximity with others – at a noisy party or on a date, for example – you might order drinks. And new hazards present themselves. Alcohol dries out the mouth, preventing the healthy saliva flow you have worked hard to achieve.

Ideally, stick to mineral water, but, if you can’t face it, fruit juice’s acidity inhibits bacterial action and its vitamin C removes malodorous toxins. But alcohol is often difficult to avoid, in which case a Bloody Mary might be your best bet. If you are offered a cigarette, decline it, as cigarettes, too, are drying agents.

If the function involves food, the obvious ingredients to avoid are garlic, onions and curry. These all release bad-smelling compounds during digestion, which are transmitted through the lungs and exhaled for up to 24 hours.

But, apart from the well-known date-spoilers, red meat, tinned anchovies and tuna, and blue cheeses are also out. All proteins are bad, but these are the worst. Fibrous meat is more likely to get stuck; and foods that are smelly when consumed can get caught in the mouth and will release their own odour, even before bacterial action begins. So forget the salade Nicoise and the cheese course.

As if problems caused by the mouth were not enough, there is also the stomach to consider. Undigested food will putrefy in the gut and produce smelly gases. Elderly people can be especially susceptible to this as they might not produce enough hydrochloric stomach acid, and this leads to a build-up of undigested food. But this can apply to anyone whose food, for whatever reasons, is not broken down.

To combat this, high-fibre foods or fruits such as pineapple, kiwi and papaya, which contain digestive enzymes, are a good idea. In contrast, high-fat and high-protein foods are difficult to digest.

So what can we eat and still end up smelling of roses? How about beans? At least they are less likely than meat to get caught between the teeth. Sadly, even beans can be bad news for those people who are unable to break down the proteins found in them; the resultant fumes smell of decaying fish. Such people suffer from “fish-odour syndrome”.

Comfortingly, Mel Rosenberg from the School of Dental Medicine at Tel Aviv University, assures me that, of the 5,000 mouths he has smelled during his career, he has never come across one with fish odour. So, unless you are in this minority group, vegetarian chilli, cassoulet or black bean soup might be a safe bet.

Many countries have traditional remedies for bad breath that can be exploited. In Brazil they chew cinnamon, in Italy parsley, in Thailand guava peel, in Iraq cloves, and in eastern Asia, aniseed.

It might sound like folklore, but all these substances are plants that contain anti-bacterial agents for their own defence. It is likely that people in various parts of the world have learnt which parts of the plants carry the most concentrated anti-bacterial agents and chew them to combat their own bacteria, particularly those in the mouth.

Some dishes even include ingredients that are good and bad for the mouth. The Middle Eastern dish, tabbouleh, for example, is packed with parsley but, unfortunately, also contains raw onion, so any anti-bacterial action may be undone.

If you are in an Indian restaurant, ask for a plate of mixed seeds – some of these will be aniseed – or a cup of sonf tea, a common Indian name for aniseed. The Bengali five-spice mixture, panchphoran, also contains sonf, as does Kashmiri cuisine.

Always skip dessert, it is usually creamy or sugary – or both. Milk products are rich in proteins and sugar promotes rapid bacterial growth. And avoid coffee as this dries the mouth, and, of course, can contain milk.

To check how fresh you have kept your breath – it’s almost impossible to check your own odour – dentists can measure some breath smells using a Halimeter®. Invented in the 1970s to measure pollutant volatile sulphur in the air, it has since been developed for oral use.

But Rosenberg says stop worrying. He has diagnosed what he calls “halitophobia”. A quarter of the people who seek his advice do not have a breath-odour problem at all, but are simply paranoid.