PERSONAL HEALTH : Bad Breath May Not Be Kiss of Death

Bad breath can kill a conversation and put distance between best friends.

And in Israel, it can even trigger divorce. (Ancient Jewish law includes bad breath as grounds for dissolving a marriage, according to a recent Reuters report, which noted that in the past few years, several couples have been granted divorces over halitosis.)

If only those dragon-breath spouses had known that bad breath is about 95% curable, thanks to tooth-flossing, tongue-brushing and a new parsley breath freshener that promises to work from the inside out.

The Facts

Halitosis--or, the newer, hipper term, "breath malodor"--affects nearly everyone at some time. Bad breath can result from overabundant oral bacteria that release "obnoxious gases," says Dr. Bruce E. Johnson, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Kansas, who recently wrote about halitosis in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Sometimes the odor is the result of eating certain foods--onions, garlic, fish and alcoholic beverages--or from taking certain medicines. Bad breath can also accompany illnesses, such as mumps, stomach disorders or lung infections.

Morning Breath

Bad breath is more common in the morning, just as the commercials suggest. That's because saliva production decreases during sleep, so fewer bacteria are washed away. With age, bad breath is more likely, too. "There is actually a documentable increase in the number of (oral) bacteria as people age," Johnson says.

Hunger Breath

Some bad breath is classified by the experts as "hunger breath"--the odor that can result when you miss a meal. Saliva decreases because you're not chewing as much as normally and you exhale the breakdown products of fats and proteins eaten before, Johnson says.

But in the eyes of Beverly Hills dentist Martin Rotman, "the predominant underlying reason for bad breath is gum disease." Others point the finger at neglect of good oral hygiene habits.

"The majority of the time, bad breath will be the result of an easily corrected or benign condition," Johnson says. And one thing's a given: bad breath is often noticed by others but not by the person who has it.

Self-Tests

If your best friend won't tell you and your scheduled dental check-up isn't just around the corner, how do you know if you're offensive? There are a couple of self-tests, recommended by dentists but not for the faint-hearted:

* Floss and sniff: Floss your teeth and decide if the floss smells. Of course, the odor on the floss will be stronger than what's on your breath, but it's a good clue.

* Pat and look: Take a piece of gauze and dab it on and off your tongue, where lots of odor-producing germs might lurk, advises Steven Goldy, a Beverly Hills dentist. "Yellow crud or residue on the gauze means you have a lot of bacteria," he says, and that usually means your breath doesn't smell so great.

Remedies

"Oral hygiene is the biggest part of combatting bad breath," says Goldy. Brush and floss frequently to keep breath sweet.

Don't overlook brushing your tongue and your gums, say many dentists, to get rid of the most bacteria.

Mouth rinses, breath sprays and chewing gum can cover up offensive odors but only for a while (perhaps 30 minutes), says Rotman.

The Natural Route

New on the halitosis remedy scene is Breath asure, all-natural capsules manufactured by an Encino company whose directors have a sense of humor about it all. "We launched Breath asure at the Los Angeles Garlic Festival in 1992," says Anthony Raissen, executive vice president of the company. A package of 50 capsules retails for $5.99 at pharmacies and health food stores.

Each capsule contains parsley seed oil, sunflower oil and gelatin. After eating garlic, onions or other potentially offensive foods, you take two or three capsules with liquid. It works in about 30 minutes by neutralizing the compounds in the digestive system, often a source of bad breath.

The concentrated capsules, says Raissen and his partner, Craig Shandler, are more convenient and efficient than carrying around sprigs of parsley.

Worst-Case Scenarios

For very stubborn cases, there is the Pennsylvania Center for Treatment of Breath Disorders, founded six months ago by Philadelphia dentist Jon Richter. Since word of the center has spread, patients have come from as far away as Florida, California and Rhode Island, says Gloria Naplachowski, center program coordinator.

To get bad breath under control, patients undergo a one-hour "oral debridement" session, in which Richter uses a special plastic cleaning device on the tongue and follows up with an antibacterial mouth rinse to finish off the germs. Before they leave, patients are instructed in use of the tongue-cleaner and mouth rinse at home. (You can also use a spoon in place of a tongue-cleaner.)

Caveat

Most bad breath responds well with improvement of oral hygiene. "But if bad breath has an abrupt onset and lasts longer than 10 days," Johnson cautions, "it should be checked out by your family doctor or dentist."

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