Checking your breath may not just save you from awkward social moments — it could also save your life. From lung cancer to kidney failure, find out what medical conditions doctors can detect by telling you to just open your mouth.
Bad breath is embarrassing! We all know. But a quick breath check can save you from more than just an awkward social situation — it could save your life. Breath-test technology can detect stomach cancer in its earliest stages, according to an April 2015 study published in the journal Gut.
However, gastric cancer isn’t the only medical condition your breath can reveal. According to the Mayo Clinic, bad-breath odors vary and depend on the underlying cause. Here are some common bad-breath causes:
- Food. As food particles break down in the mouth, bacteria increase, resulting in bad odors. Onions, garlic, and certain spices are common bad-breath causes.
- Tobacco products. Smoking tobacco also results in smelly breath, as does chewing tobacco.
- Poor dental habits. Not flossing or brushing your teeth regularly is a common cause of bad breath. This happens when tiny bits of food stay trapped in your mouth. Your tongue can be another bad-breath cause as bacteria coats it, causing foul odors.
- Dry mouth. A condition called dry mouth be a bad-breath cause as saliva in the mouth is reduced. Dry mouth is a common cause of morning breath, especially in people who sleep with their mouth open.
- Dental infections. Tooth decay, gum disease, surgical wounds, and dying teeth are all causes of bad breath.
- Postnasal drip. Mucus that hardens in the tonsils can be a cause of bad breath. Chronic postnasal drip and sinus drainage are also bad-breath causes.
- GERD. An acidic stomach or chronic reflux of stomach acid (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) is linked to bad breath. Treating GERD may cure the bad breath.
- Other serious causes. Some types of cancer and metabolic diseases can leave a distinctive breath smell. Talk to your doctor if you detect a metallic or other odor.
Some people worry too much about their breath even though they have little or no mouth odor, while others have bad breath and don’t know it. Because it’s difficult to assess how your own breath smells, ask a close friend or relative to confirm your bad-breath worries.
While poor dental hygiene accounts for most cases of halitosis, bad breath can sometimes signal another underlying medical condition. And you don’t have to give off an odor, either: Even the freshest breath can be screened for various health problems.
Breath Tests May Diagnose Lung Cancer
Could lung cancer be a cause of bad breath? Pathologists normally perform biopsies and ultrasound scans to diagnose lung cancer, but using breath tests may be a cheaper, noninvasive alternative, according to a 2013 study. Using a preprogrammed “electronic nose,” which detects different profiles of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in exhaled breath, researchers from the University of Latvia examined breath samples from 475 subjects, which included a mix of 252 lung cancer patients, 223 patients with different lung conditions and healthy volunteers, 265 smokers, and 210 nonsmokers.
They found that among the nonsmokers, lung cancer was accurately identified in 128 subjects and misdiagnosed in only 5. Among smokers, the electronic nose correctly identified 114 people as having lung cancer, misdiagnosing 5.
Heart Failure May Be Diagnosed With Breath Samples
Researchers were able to use a simple breath test to identify patients suffering from heart failure, according to a March 2013 paper published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
Cleveland Clinic researchers collected breath samples from 41 patients. Twenty-five were officially diagnosed with acute decompensated heart failure. Sixteen patients had other cardiovascular conditions but showed no signs of heart failure.
Researchers then used mass spectrometric technology to analyze the breath samples for molecular and chemical compound signs of heart failure.
Fruity or Acetone Breath May Indicate Diabetes Complications
Poorly managed diabetes can make you more susceptible to gum disease and dry mouth. When blood sugar levels aren’t stabilized, the weakened body isn’t able to fight bacteria that can cause infections that harm the gums. These same infections are what cause bad breath.
But a fruity breath odor or an odor similar to acetone (commonly used in nail polish remover) can also point to a serious complication in diabetic patients called ketoacidosis. When the body doesn’t have enough insulin, it instead uses fatty acids for energy, which produces acidic ketones, by-products of fat metabolism. These acids, which include acetone, hydroxybutyrate, and acetoacetate, can accumulate in the blood and lead to a diabetic coma or death.
Fishy Breath May Be a Sign of Kidney Failure
Fishy breath isn’t always from seafood: A mouth that smells like fishy-odor urine, similar to ammonia, may indicate kidney failure.
The kidneys are responsible for removing toxic chemicals from the blood by creating urine. In kidney failure, also known as end-stage renal disease, the kidneys become so damaged that they are no longer able to filter waste products and toxic chemicals from the blood. When this happens, the dangerous toxins and waste not discharged from the body accumulate and affect nearly every part of the body. The fishy-breath odor can occur when kidney failure affects the respiratory system and causes breathing problems.
Sleep Apnea Can Cause Morning Breath
Morning breath may seem normal after a night of sleeping. Saliva production decreases during sleep, which gives odor-producing bacteria an opportunity to multiply and grow.
But the slowed production of saliva during sleep can sometimes be caused by leaving your mouth open for long periods of time. People with sleep disorders such as sleep apnea and snoring may have trouble breathing through the nose and are more likely to breathe through their mouths, which is a cause of bad breath.
Stomach Cancer Is a Serious Cause of Bad Breath
Routine screening for stomach cancer in the United States is uncommon, largely because the current method – endoscopy – is invasive. But that may change with the development of breath-test technology called nanoarray analysis, which identifies the levels of certain compounds that are linked to stomach cancer.
Researchers in Haifa, Israel, looked at breath samples of 484 people who had fasted for 12 hours and avoided smoking for at least 3 hours prior to the test. Ninety-nine of the participants had received stomach cancer diagnoses but had not yet begun treatment. The nanoarray analysis accurately distinguished between the different early stages of stomach cancer and also helped physicians identify patients at higher risk of developing the condition.
Although the study was small and preliminary, a larger trial is currently under way in Europe to determine if nanoarray analysis can be used as an effective screening method.
GERD May Be a Cause of Bad Breath
Digestive conditions such as acid reflux and gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) are bad-breath causes. Both digestive conditions can delay or prevent food from processing efficiently in the stomach. When food doesn’t move through the digestive system, it can start to decay. Small amounts of undigested food may even regurgitate and cause bad breath. Dentists may also detect GERD in patients when they notice an inflamed red throat and acid erosion in the teeth.
But GERD isn’t the only digestive health issue that can affect your breath. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Medical Microbiology suggests that the H. pylori bacteria that cause stomach ulcers can be a cause of bad breath.
Allergies and Postnasal May Drip Lead to Foul Breath
Respiratory tract infections such as the flu, bronchitis, and sinusitis are common causes of bad breath. When respiratory tract infections break down or inflame the tissues in the respiratory system, it can trigger the production of bacteria-feeding cells and mucus.
Allergies and postnasal drip may also be what causes bad breath because these conditions tend to clog the nose. This nasal congestion may force you to breathe through your mouth, which can lead to dryness and the growth of bacteria that cause foul breath.
Stop Bad Breath Linked to Tooth Decay and Gingivitis
When the enamel on your teeth erodes, food particles can get deposited in those holes, called dental caries. Because brushing your teeth can’t remove these food deposits, they can eventually grow bacteria, which is what causes bad breath.
Gingivitis is another medical condition that is a cause of bad breath. When the gum becomes inflamed with bacteria, it can result in severe pain and funky-smelling discharge.
If you are experiencing bad breath, call Dr. Bryan Kariya and Dr. William Kohs at South Penn Dental today – 405-681-6601. We can help determine the cause and provide a solution.
Medically Reviewed by Sanjai Sinha, MD