You’re a young soldier at boot camp. It’s just after the crack of dawn. The troops are lined up and the drill sergeant is about a quarter inch from your face, yelling at the top of his lungs. The screaming is bad enough but a salvo of Sarge’s foul, stinky breath slams into your face and threatens to dissolve your fillings. The dreaded morning breath has struck again.
Don’t get mad at Sarge. All of us—including you and Sarge—have nasty breath in the morning. The cause of morning breath is simple: saliva, or more accurately, the lack of saliva.
“Everyone has morning breath to some degree,” said Dr. Sally J. Cram, a periodontist in the Washington, D.C., area and an adviser for the American Dental Association. Saliva is nature’s way of protecting us from bad breath because healthy saliva contains a high concentration of oxygen, the natural enemy of bad breath bacteria.
When you sleep, your salivary glands slow down because your brain knows you’re not eating. With less saliva, your mouth dries up and odor-producing bacteria proliferate. “That’s why your breath can be worse in the morning,” Dr. Cram explained.
As you sleep, the slowdown of saliva production combines with the constant flow of air over your palate when you snore or breathe through your mouth. This combination makes for a dry tongue, mouth, and throat. These conditions form the breeding grounds for the sulfur-producing bacteria that cause bad breath.
Some medications cause your mouth to become dry overnight—intensifying the problem of morning breath. Smokers and allergy sufferers are also at a greater risk for raunchy morning breath.
You can take some steps to combat morning breath. First, the obvious—brush your teeth thoroughly. Odor-causing bacteria accumulate between your teeth and on your tongue so practice careful dental hygiene. Brush for at least two minutes, not the 30 seconds or so that most people do. After you brush, go directly to bed. “Don’t eat or drink anything so you’re not leaving food in your mouth,” Dr. Cram said.
When you brush your teeth, don’t forget to brush your tongue. The back of the tongue is a favorite hangout for odor-causing bacteria. “Eighty-five percent of bad breath comes from the tongue,” said New York dentist Irwin Smigel, president of the American Society for Dental Aesthetics. Flossing and rinsing with a germ-killing mouthwash are also important.
“Flossing is as important as brushing,” said Dr. Kimberly Harms, a spokeswoman for the American Dental Association.
Keeping some breath mints on the nightstand is also a good idea. Especially for Sarge.