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Mouth Symptoms

What causes bad breath – and what can I do about it?

Bad breath (halitosis) has many causes, including certain medical conditions, dry mouth (xerostomia), poor oral hygiene, periodontal disease, dental caries (tooth decay), failing dental restorations, tooth infection (abscess), post-nasal drainage (drip), smoking, and tonsil infections. Breath which smells like rotting fruit can be a sign of diabetes. Alcoholics also may experience bad breath—from the alcohol itself, from gastric reflux which is common in alcoholism, and from liver damage.

Here are some things you can do to help prevent bad breath:

Brush twice a day

Brush thoroughly at least twice a day, and clean between your teeth, under fixed bridgework and around other “food traps” your dental professional may have identified. Use dental floss, an interdental cleaner, toothpicks, and/or other hygiene aids your situation may require, at least daily.

Brush your tongue

Brush your tongue or use a tongue scraper to help eliminate bacteria that contribute to bad breath. Many of the bacteria that contribute to bad breath are located in areas where oxygen is scarce, such as deep furrows in the tongue, in gum pockets, and other plaque-retentive areas of the mouth.

Oxygenating rinses

Compounds produced by the bacteria that live in oxygen-poor areas of the mouth (anaerobic bacteria) include volatile forms of sulfur, which smells like rotten eggs. There are products which are designed to neutralize this odor, and oxygenate the area to control the number of bacteria that flourish where oxygen is scarce. Ask your dentist whether he/she feels oxygenating rinses may be useful in your case.

Quit smoking

If you smoke, you should quit. Your dentist or physician can prescribe medication to help you quit the habit. Many mouthwashes that claim to eliminate bad breath provide temporary masking of the condition, and can even contribute to bad breath by supplying sugars to the bacteria that cause it.

Get a dental checkup

If it has been awhile since your last dental checkup, make an appointment soon, so that serious conditions can be ruled out.


If the bad breath is accompanied by pain, swelling, tooth sensitivity, dry mouth or a bad taste, see a dentist as soon as possible.

What causes a bad taste in the mouth?

A bad taste in your mouth can arise from a variety of sources, most commonly poor oral hygiene and smoking. However, if you maintain good oral hygiene, and have recently noted an unusually bad taste you should see a dentist to rule out common causes. Among these are failing dental restorations, poorly contoured dental restorations, periodontal disease, dental infections (abscesses), and tooth decay.

What causes painful glands? I sometimes experience this after running in the cold.

Sharp pain from the parotid glands, which are located on the back side of the lower jaw just beneath the ear lobes, is often due to shunting (redirection) of bloodflow in and out of the glands in response to temperature changes. The glands are situated relatively close to the surface of the skin, and exposure to cold temperatures can cause blood flow to be redirected to the core organs—away from the extremities and glands. Vigorous activity like running places further demands on bloodflow to the glands by redirecting it to muscles of the extremities.

In other words, the body places a low priority on blood flow to the glands. When salivation is stimulated by thoughts of, or consumption of food or drink, the glands attempt to recapture blood flow quickly. This causes a rapid pressure change in the gland that can produce significant momentary discomfort.

A similar effect occurs when especially bitter or sour foods and drinks are ingested. This is because the glands attempt to deliver relatively large volumes of saliva in a short time in order to neutralize the bitter/sour substance, which produces a rapid pressure change in the gland. Once again, the result is momentary discomfort.

Neither of these examples of transient gland pain is of consequence; however, if you regularly experience painful salivation, especially if it is only from one gland or area, you should be evaluated by a physician or dentist as soon as possible to rule out potentially serious gland issues like duct obstructions and glandular cancers.

What causes mouth sores?

The most common mouth sores are canker sores and fever blisters. There are many other types of sores, and for those that don’t heal within 10 to 14 days, or heal and then come back, it is a good idea to have a dentist look at them to rule out serious conditions like oral cancer.

Can a purple lump in my mouth be a sign of a serious condition?

Most commonly, bluish-purple nodules in the tissue are nothing more than a group of dilated veins which come together to form a mass of tissue called a hemangioma. These are typically of no consequence, and are most often not treated. However, any new growth should be evaluated by a qualified physician or dentist to rule out something more serious.

What could cause a white patch in my mouth?

A white region of tissue which will not wipe off is known as leukoplakia. Leukoplakia can represent a variety of conditions, including benign keratosis (a thickening of the outer squamous layers of mucosa that develops in response to chronic soft tissue abrasion); oral candidiasis (a fungal infection commonly limited to people with no teeth and those with compromised immune function); and the much more serious oral cancer, which must be ruled out.

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Author: Thomas J. Greany, D.D.S. / Editor: Ken Lambrecht

This page was last updated on November 27, 2017.

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