Under my byline

Hexed by halitosis

Posted in Health by Rrishi on 26 August 2007

Do people take a step back when you open your mouth to speak?

Here’s an irreverent description of Mahatma Gandhi circulating on the Internet: a “super-calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis”. One should instantly recognise the reference to the 1964 Mary Poppins musical. As for Gandhi, the rest is speculation, but it is known that he had bad breath.

Bad breath, or halitosis, is a common but surprisingly complex problem. Nearly everyone has it at one time or another. Ever since dental hygiene and professional dentistry became widely available, smelly breath and ugly teeth have become reasons to reject someone’s company. A 1999 BBC survey in the UK ranked halitosis just after scruffy clothes and body odour as a person’s least attractive feature. In the same survey, nearly half thought that bad breath hurts one’s chances of promotion at work.

Smelly breath starts in the mouth. Sugary foods, meat, red wine, coffee, canned fish, milk products and some cheeses leave debris in the mouth that encourages bacterial growth (plaque), especially at the back of the tongue and between the teeth and gums. The bacteria release volatile sulphur compounds (VSCs), which make the smell. Solution: brush and floss regularly and effectively, and see a dentist.

Volatile oils in foods like garlic and onions are absorbed into the blood and released into the lungs, staining the breath for as long as they last.

Dry mouth, or xerostomia, when the flow of saliva is reduced, also encourages bacterial growth and smell. Some antibiotics inhibit the salivary glands, which also happens with age. Smoking, tobacco and alcohol dry the mouth. Solutions: drink more fluids and chew sugarless gum. In extreme cases, doctors can prescribe artificial saliva.

Poor digestion, including a shortage of enzymes or hydrochloric acid in the stomach, and constipation, especially in older people, can leave food incompletely digested. The resultant rotting releases gases that can spoil the breath. Stress is known to damage digestion. Solutions: less stress, more fruits like kiwi, papaya and pineapple that contain digestive enzymes, fibre-rich food, better exercise.

Medical disorders like respiratory infections, diabetes, reflux or gastrointestinal disease, kidney and liver malfunction occasionally cause bad breath. Sinusitis results in postnasal drip, in which fluid drips from infected sinuses down the throat, feeding bacteria there. Solution: see a doctor.

Mel Rosenberg, an Israeli microbiologist and authority on halitosis, says that politicians and lawyers have the worst breath — because they talk so much that their mouth dries out. This, coupled with his eccentric dietary habits, is probably what hexed Gandhi.

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