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Children and Halitosis (Bad Breath)

By January 17, 2018June 4th, 2024Kids Dentistry

It would be nearly impossible to sail through life without ever having stinky breath. After all, what kind of world would it be without garlic bread? While we often think of it as a problem that plagues adults, as most parents can attest, when it comes to bad breath kids aren’t immune either. In fact, halitosis (a fancy word for bad breath) can occur even in babies. A little morning breath is no big deal. However, mom and dad often get rightfully concerned when it’s persistent and lasts throughout the day even after brushing. Acute and chronic bad breath are typically caused by different things and we’ll go over the common culprits as well as how to get rid of bad breath in a child.

What Can Cause Bad Breath in Toddlers, Infants and Children?

Halitosis usually comes from the mouth but it can also originate in the nose or airway depending on the underlying cause. Who knew bad breath was such a complex issue? As a Denver pediatric dentist, here’s what Dr. Paddy sees most:

  • Morning Breath: When we’re sleeping, our saliva production slows way down. This lets odor-causing bacteria hang out and create a stink. Fortunately, this type of halitosis goes away when we brush our teeth and the spit starts flowing again.
  • Certain Foods: The digestive process begins as soon as you take a bite of food. Garlic, onions, cheese and other strong smelling foods start to breakdown in the mouth and as this happens, your kid’s breath doesn’t smell all that great. It’s a temporary type of halitosis and nothing to be alarmed about.
  • Poor Oral Hygiene: This is by far the number one reason kids develop bad breath. When children don’t brush and floss properly, food particles and plaque work their way into every nook and cranny and certain bacteria in the mouth have a heyday and release a stench. This can be even worse with children who are wearing fixed orthodontic appliances since they’re a little more challenging to keep clean.
  • The Tongue: The vast majority of odor-causing bacteria are on the back of the tongue where they attach to epithelial cells. These cells, bacteria and food particles get stuck in the crevices and decompose giving off a really foul smell.
  • Tooth Decay and Other Dental Problems: Cavities are decaying teeth and decay never smells good. Plus, teeth with cavities tend to trap food debris, which just adds to the problem. Abscessed teeth, mouth sores and damaged or improperly placed restorations can all stink or allow bacteria to accumulate too.
  • Gum Disease: Cavities, cavities, cavities. They’re the mouth monsters that get the most attention but gingivitis, or gum disease, is a serious concern too. When plaque and tartar build up on the teeth, the bacteria release acids and toxins that cause the gums to get infected and inflamed. One of the symptoms is bad breath.
  • Dry Mouth: This is a little like morning breath in that saliva isn’t washing away bacteria and food debris so the breath starts to smell. However, dry mouth, or xerostomia, doesn’t usually go away as easily as morning breath, particularly if it’s caused by medication or a medical condition. Dehydration can be behind dry mouth as well but it’s an easier fix.
  • Mouth Breathing: Mouth breathing, whether it’s a sleep habit or an occasional thing due to a stuffy nose, halts salvia production and causes dry mouth, leading to halitosis 
  • Sinus Infection: Sinus infections are another cause of bad breath that occurs frequently. The mucus makes its way down the back of the throat and gets comfy on the tongue. The bacteria then feed off the mucus and release smelly gases.  
  • Prominent Tonsils: Large tonsils or tonsils with deep pits are magnets for debris and oral and nasal secretions that decompose and smell bad. Also, tonsilloliths (whitish-yellow secretions) can form in the pits and as they break up, they give off a stinky odor.
  • Medications: Antihistamines, bronchodilators, antipsychotics, antidepressants, antispasmodics and several other medications are known to cause dry mouth and bad breath. When kids use antibiotics for an extended period, halitosis can also temporarily rear its head.
  • Health Conditions and Illnesses: There are a variety of health conditions that can result in halitosis in children including diabetes, the aforementioned sinus infections and postnasal drip, allergies, gastroesophageal reflux, infections in the respiratory tract, thrush, diabetes and, less commonly, liver and kidney issues, among others. Don’t panic. Just because your kid’s breath is unpleasant, it doesn’t mean they necessarily have a disease or serious health concern. However, if we’ve ruled out all other causes, visiting the pediatrician is a good idea.
  • Something Stuck in the Nose: Let’s face it, kids do some strange things as they explore the world around them and toddlers have been known to stick things in their nose. Whether it’s a small toy or a piece of food, it will cause inflammation, nasal secretions and eventually a bad odor. If, after all of your investigative work, you’re still asking yourself, “Why does my toddler’s breath smell so bad?,” it can’t hurt to take a look in their nose. If you do spot something and it happens to be a hard object, you can make an attempt to remove it yourself. The Cleveland Clinic suggests trying the “mother’s kiss” method a single time. To perform the “mother’s kiss,” put your hand over your little one’s mouth, close the nostril that isn’t obstructed with your finger and blow gently into their mouth. If it’s not successful or the object is soft, seek medical attention. If you don’t see anything but there’s a foul stench coming from one nostril or your child has a high fever and dark green mucus, contact their pediatrician.

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Kids Halitosis Remedies

  • Have your child brush their teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time and floss once daily. For younger kids, you’ll probably need to brush and floss for them or at least provide a little assistance and supervision. Kids should brush the back of their tongue or use a tongue scraper too to get rid of the smelly coating.
  • Make breakfast a priority. Eating in the morning gets the saliva going and helps wash away food particles and bacteria.
  • To keep dry mouth at bay, children need to drink enough water throughout the day. They can also rinse with water after every meal or snack or whenever their mouth feels dry.
  • Another way to boost saliva production and say goodbye to bacteria is letting kids chew sugarless gum (they’ll love this one!). Look for gum containing xylitol, a natural way to fight cavities, and you’ll address two problems at once.
  • Give your child raw fruits and veggies as snacks. Crunchy things like carrot sticks or apple slices are “nature’s toothbrushes” since they can help scrape away plaque. Plus, if they fill up on healthy foods, they’ll be less likely to seek out sugary treats.
  • If halitosis is caused by cavities, gum disease or oral infections, your dentist will need to step in and treat the problem while also giving you instructions for home care.
  • Try to stop mouth breathing in its tracks if it’s a nighttime habit. Pediatric dentists are well versed in helping patients eliminate harmful oral habits.
  • Visit the pediatrician regularly and if bad breath is from a health condition, talk about possible treatments. If medication is the reason and a child is really bothered by their bad breath, you might want to discuss alternatives.
  • See your pediatric dentist for regular checkups and cleanings. We’ll keep your child’s oral health on track and kick dragon breath to the curb.

How We Get to the Bottom of Bad Breath in Kids

When kiddos come into our Denver pediatric dental practice with bad breath, we don’t just give them mints or tell them to brush and floss more. We want to find the underlying cause in order to best treat the problem. Here’s what you can expect:

  • The Sniff Test: Parents are sometimes surprised when Dr. Paddy gets a few inches away from their child’s mouth and sniffs. However, this is the most reliable way to diagnose halitosis and different smells can mean different things. For example, gum disease and tooth decay have distinct odors as do issues like uncontrolled diabetes.
  • Complete Medical History: Once we smell your child’s breath, we’ll chat with you about their health history, medical conditions and medications they’re taking.
  • Examination: An exam is necessary to check for problems such as cavities, gum disease, dry mouth, damaged restorations, mouth sores and debris and plaque around orthodontic appliances. These are all treatable and the sooner we uncover the problem, the sooner your child can regain their fresh breath.

A lot of causes of bad breath can be taken care of at home. However, if excellent oral hygiene, a healthy diet, plenty of water and other practices don’t help at all, schedule an appointment at Kids Mile High. Dr. Paddy has been trained in the unique oral health needs of kids. He can determine the reason why your child’s breath smells bad and take the steps to fix it.

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Dr. Paddy

Author Dr. Paddy

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Join the discussion One Comment

  • Very well explained. When we think of bad breath, we tend to just think of the mouth. However, issues with the mouth can be tied to larger problems with the nose and throat as well. Thanks Dr. Paddy for sharing your great oral health experience here.