Helping a Teenager Battle Bad Breath

What parent who goes to hug a teenager hasn't gotten a whiff of stale, stinky breath in the bargain? Your child may have taken over her own oral health as soon as she could handle a toothbrush, but just because she can brush and floss doesn't mean she does. 

A young woman brushing her teeth
​Caroline Purser / Getty Images

If you're living with a kid who can smell up the car just by yawning or, worse, has been ostracized by her peers because her breath is offensive, here are some practical tips for helping her to heal her halitosis.

Causes of Bad Breath

Before you broach the topic of bad breath with your teenager, think before you speak. No one knows her as you do, so if she tends to be sensitive, find a gentle way to bring it up that won't hurt her feelings. Adolescents are dealing with myriad issues pertaining to changes in their bodies and can be as self-conscious about their breath as they are about budding breasts or deepening voices.

One approach: Reassure her that everyone has bad breath sometimes and that it's usually caused by something that can easily be dealt with. In other words, having halitosis isn't a personal failing. It can be caused by eating certain foods, as the odor from these foods is expelled from the lungs after they're absorbed into the bloodstream (garlic, onions, cabbage, and coffee are notorious in this regard); underlying dental or medical conditions (cavities or gum disease, for example); dry mouth (xerostomia); oral cancer; and certain lifestyle choices (such as cigarette smoking).

When Poor Oral Hygiene Is To Blame

That said, the primary cause of bad breath is infrequent brushing and flossing. This is simply because bacteria from food particles that remain on or in between the teeth and on the tongue can become rotten and emit a foul smell. So once you've ruled out other potential causes of your teen's problem, it may well come down to a refresher course on how to brush and floss and a doubling down on dental care.

Some things to remember as you guide your child to cleaner teeth and a fresher mouth:

  • Mouthwash, gum, and breath mints will only mask bad breath—these products will not eliminate the odor. The only way to really rid the mouth of foul-smelling bacteria is by brushing twice a day and flossing at least once a day.
  • Smoking and other tobacco products not only cause breath to be stale and smelly in the short run, but they also increase the risk of oral cancer, which is a potential cause of bad breath.
  • Eating foods that are good for you is as important for maintaining a clean-smelling mouth as avoiding ones that are known to cause bad breath. Sugar and carbs (that break down into sugar) are well-known causes of tooth decay.
  • Braces present an extra challenge for teens ​since food can so easily become trapped in the metalwork and wires. Make sure your child with braces follows the orthodontist's instructions for caring for her teeth while they're being straightened. That way, when the braces come off, her teeth will be as shiny and white as her breath will be fresh and clean.
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