Hold your hand over your mouth like a mask and exhale. Sniff. What do you smell? Hopefully you smell nothing much at all, except perhaps toothpaste or a reminder of lunch. Or ask someone you really trust and feel comfortable with to take a quick whiff of your breath. What do they smell? Your breath's odour can sometimes reveal more than what you just ate.

Does your breath smell bad? General bad breath can be categorized as halitosis. But even common halitosis can reveal information about your health. Normally, if breath smells mildly foul, poor oral hygiene is to blame. In that case, improving your brush-and-floss routine should help to remove any food lodged between teeth and under the gums. A tool called a tongue scraper can help remove stinking food particles and bacteria from the surface of your tongue, and mouthwash can help cleanse the entire mouth.

At times, mildly foul breath could signal an abscessed tooth or a throat, sinus, or respiratory infection, like bronchitis. Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD) can make the breath smell foul. Rarely, a tumour in the esophagus or stomach may cause foul breath. An underlying lung abscess or infection may cause breath that one would consider “very foul.” A tonsillolith, or "tonsil stone," can also cause very bad breath when dead cells, mucus, or food particles become lodged in the tonsils and attract bad-smelling bacteria.

Does your breath reek of garlic or onions? Just pop a mint or piece of gum to mask it, because this odour simply springs from volatile oils found in some particularly strong foods like garlic or onions. When you eat certain pungent foods, the odours pass from your bloodstream and into your lungs, where you breathe them out into the air. Food smells such as these have nothing to do with your personal hygiene. You can't brush them away - you just have to wait for them to pass.

Do you catch a scent of morning breath? You may have xerostomia. Don't panic - that just means "dry mouth." A bit stale, not too incredibly overpowering, "morning breath" scent happens when your mouth has become too dry, like when you sleep with your mouth slightly open. But dry mouth can come about because of dehydration or as a side effect of certain medications and conditions. People with diabetes, anemia, high blood pressure, and rheumatoid arthritis, for instance, may experience dry mouth.

Does your breath smell like a particular scent? Certain diseases and conditions cause a cluster of symptoms, of which a distinctive breath scent could be one.

  • A "fruity" breath could indicate uncontrolled diabetes or a dietary fast that has gone too far. Ketoacidosis is a potentially life-threatening condition that can happen to people with diabetes, when the body begins to break down fat for energy.
  • A "fishy" breath, which may smell like ammonia or urine to some, is a sign of kidney or liver failure. This scent is also sometimes categorized as "mousy."
  • A "fecal" breath, that is, breath that smells like feces, could mean that the bowel is obstructed. It could also be a side effect of prolonged vomiting.

If you are concerned about any changes you notice in the scent of your breath, contact your dentist or doctor for an appointment.

Amy Toffelmire