DID you know that a person’s breath can tell quite a lot of things about him (or her) and his condition?

You could be healthy and ripe for love with your “sweet breath”, but you could also be sick and suffering from bad breath or halitosis. It is not just about that occasional bad breath caused by indulging in strong-smelling foods such as petai, durian and garlic.

Sometimes, a person’s bad breath could be a sign of illnesses beyond mere poor oral hygiene; it could be an indicator of something more serious and sinister.

Many years ago, I had recurrent bouts of sinusitis. I tolerated the pain for a long time and treated it symptomatically with medications and nasal sprays. Then, one day, I smelt rotten garbage everywhere. I cleaned my house like a possessed woman, trying to get rid of the awful smell. I was hoping to find its source as I scoured every inch and corner of the house. My family thought I had gone quite mad because they couldn’t smell the rot that I was obsessing about.

As the days progressed and my headaches became worse, I went to see an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist. After detailed examination and tests, he confirmed that I had a severe case of sinusitis with polyps in the sinus cavities. That was the cause of the garbage smell. It was inside my nose and nasal passages.

The doctor said in worse cases, even the person next to you would be able to smell that awful odour, especially from your breath because most people with such problems were mouth breathers. I was fortunate that the doctor was very good at what he did and solved the problem for me. He surgically removed the polyps and after a few weeks, I was back to normal.

I could smell again, and the smells were all appropriate. It has been more than 20 years now and I’ve never suffered that again. I had forgotten how wonderful fresh air smelt, not to mention everything else.

Now that I can smell again, I find that I am quite sensitive to all sorts of smell. It’s as though my olfactory was given a good overhaul.


When you’re a caregiver, being able to smell well can alert you to certain things. It’s not always pleasant, but you can sometimes prevent something before it gets worse. For example, you can tell when someone has dental problems like tooth decay or gum disease. A person might be able to mask it with mouthwash or breath mints, but that doesn’t last very long. That person would need to see the dentist to address issues like cavities and gingivitis.

When my children were younger, the odour of their breaths always alerted me if something was not quite right. It could be anything from sore throats to actual dental problems.

You don’t have to be in each other’s faces to know this. Just sitting next to that person, or across from him will tell you that something’s not quite right. In addition to regular dental check-ups, I would take them or my staff to the dentist when I suspected dental problems. There was a time when one of them was really stinky. The breath was so bad that sitting at close quarters felt like punishment. The dentist diagnosed poor oral hygiene and lack of drinking plain water because for years this person had refused to drink plain water, preferring juices and beverages instead. Once that was corrected, the odour disappeared like magic.

Bad breath or halitosis can also be caused by conditions such as dry mouth, dehydration, smoking, respiratory infections such as sore throat and sinusitis, diabetes and acid reflux.

Some medications are culprits too. Different conditions give out different odours, from metallic, fruity and fishy to mouldy breath.

People who are fasting, for example, usually have that typical “fasting breath”. In fact, anyone who had missed out on meals would have this breath because the mouth slows its production of saliva with the lack of meals or fluids. This causes

dry mouth, which in turn, causes bad breath.

People who go on low or no carb diets can also suffer from bad breath while the body burns fat — that is the smell of ketosis taking place.

To combat this, practising good oral hygiene such as brushing teeth at least twice daily, flossing regularly to remove debris and plaque, and scraping the tongue helps. You also need to drink lots of water and visit your dentist on schedule.

Putri Juneita Johari volunteers for the Special Children Society of Ampang. You can reach her at juneitajohari@yahoo.com

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