5 Reasons Your Breath Stinks That Have Nothing to Do With Food

Some causes of bad breath go beyond what you ate for lunch.
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Sure, if you're eating garlic soup (a real thing), popped open a tin of sardines for lunch (smelly, but super healthy) or had a salad laced with red onions, your breath probably stinks right now. That's to be expected, and you're probably chewing some sugar-free gum as we speak.

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But there could be other reasons behind your dragon breath that have nothing to do with what you're eating. In fact, now that you're wearing a mask constantly, you're probably paying attention to your breath more than ever.

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Here's the scoop on what's behind a raging case of halitosis:

1. You’ve Got an Infection

From strep throat to a sinus infection, some illnesses can make your breath reek.

"It's called 'infection breath.' In the back of the throat, bacteria are killing off skin or inflaming folds in the tonsils, creating that smell," Shawn Nasseri, MD, an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Beverly Hills, California, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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Interestingly enough, only some people have the smell receptors required to detect the telltale odor of strep throat, he says. (So, if you don't smell it, other people might be able to.)

On the other hand, if you have a sinus infection, the post-nasal drip contains an enzyme mixed with infection-fighting white blood cells. The drip tastes bitter — and smells blah, too.

Fix it:​ See your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Strep throat requires antibiotics to treat, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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On the other hand, a sinus infection doesn't typically require antibiotics and taking them can be harmful, the CDC says. At-home remedies like a warm compress may be all you need.

2. Acid Reflux Is Bubbling Up

Stress, eating quickly, gulping bubbly beverages, hitting the morning caffeine hard or drinking alcohol later at night can all lead to acid reflux, Dr. Nasseri says.

"All of these things make the sphincter at the bottom of the esophagus relax, allowing stomach acid or contents to come back up into the upper esophagus," he explains.

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This can cause heartburn or, if the liquid comes up high enough, lead to funky-smelling burps and breath.

Fix it:​ Everyone has different reflux triggers, so discover yours (keeping a food diary can help) and then make small shifts in your lifestyle to avoid them. For instance, if you drink, have your glass of wine three to four hours before bed, not as a nightcap.

Onions and garlic are common reflux culprits; Dr. Nasseri recommends eating dishes with these ingredients for lunch rather than dinner.

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3. A Tonsil Stone Is Gunking Things Up

Ever looked at your tonsils (if you still have them)? They are some crazy-looking organs.

"Tonsils are built like the surface of the moon," Dr. Nasseri says.

It's in these deep grooves and ridges that small pieces of food or debris can get trapped, eventually hardening into calcium deposits, per the Cleveland Clinic. And these things stink. You can often see them on your tonsils — they look like white or yellowish pea-sized chunks, Dr. Nasseri says.

Fix it:​ He suggests swishing your mouth and gargling with water that contains a pinch of salt and baking soda, or carefully using a long Q-tip to push it out.

If stones can't be dislodged, talk to your doctor, who may recommend antibiotics.

4. Your Mouth Is Like the Sahara

Saliva is a good thing — it washes through your mouth, keeping food debris out and neutralizing acid, per the American Dental Association (ADA). But if your mouth is chronically dry, it can't stay clean, and bad breath-causing bacteria take over.

The condition, called xerostomia, can be a symptom of diseases like uncontrolled diabetes or Sjögren's syndrome (an autoimmune disorder that affects the salivary glands).

Dry mouth can also be a side effect of more than 400 OTC and Rx medications, including antihistamines, blood pressure-regulating meds and antidepressants, per the ADA.

The condition also puts you at risk for developing cavities, another contributor to bad breath.

Fix it:​ Keeping your mouth moist by drinking water, chewing gum, using OTC saliva substitute sprays and gels and using a humidifier at night can address symptoms. But talk to your doctor to identify and manage the root cause.

5. You’ve Got a Cavity

Is your tooth aching and sore? "There's something called 'cavity breath,'" Dr. Nasseri says.

Anaerobic bacteria that grow on teeth and in the mouth can get a funky, distinctive smell, he says. (Interestingly, this type of bacteria is also behind morning breath.)

Along with pain, other symptoms of tooth decay include tooth sensitivity to sweets, hot or cold, per the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research. In severe cases, a pocket of pus forms, leading to worsening facial pain, swelling and fever.

Fix it:​ Call your dentist, describe your symptoms and make an appointment for a checkup.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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