What It’s Like to Live With Chronic Bad Breath

‘I dreaded being called on to read at school, because that meant I’d have to open my mouth.’

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Bad breath might sound like a superficial problem that can be alleviated with something as simple as a mint. But when you have chronic halitosis — foul-smelling breath that never seems to go away, no matter how diligent your dental hygiene — the impact can be absolutely devastating.

It seems like such a dumb issue to people who don’t deal with it, but it really shaped my life in a strong way,” says Morgan (an alias to protect their privacy), who grew up with chronic bad breath. “It made me anxious every day at school, because I didn’t want to breathe on anyone. We had our desks pushed together, and I would always have myself angled away from my partner. I would only breathe through my nose — I dreaded being called on to read, because that meant I’d have to open my mouth.”

Despite these attempts to hide her perpetually bad breath, bullies inevitably targeted Morgan because of the smell emanating from her mouth. “I withdrew from approaches by the ‘popular kids’ and stuck to the group of socially-awkward kids, because I felt safer with them in a weird way,” she explains. “However, one of those kids hurt my feelings about it at a sleepover once. We woke up in the morning, and I brushed my teeth with some big brand of toothpaste. That only made my bad breath worse — I’m not sure what it was about those toothpaste brands, but maybe the artificial mint flavors didn’t mix well with the bacteria in my mouth — and this girl commented something out of nowhere: ‘You never brush your teeth!’ She had malice behind her voice, and I was so upset. I told her that I had actually just brushed.”

“I’ll never forget that moment — or other similar ones — because I knew I had great oral hygiene,” Morgan continues. “I brushed my teeth way more than my peers did. It made people think I was gross or unaware of my hygiene. It was hell, because I knew I had bad breath — I could smell and taste it, but I had no idea what to do about it, and my parents were clueless, so I just suffered.”

The big problem with chronic halitosis is that there can be an endless number of causes. Corbin Brady, a dentist at Brady Dental Care, previously told me that dry mouth is one common cause, since the lack of saliva results in a buildup of decomposing dead cells on the tongue, gums and cheeks. Other common causes include acid reflux, as well as postnasal drip — excess mucus that accumulates in the back of the throat — which is what Morgan suspects was the culprit behind her problem. Once you rule out poor hygiene, though, the expert advice is almost always, “Check with a dentist.”

Whatever the cause, Morgan has since found a product that helps her manage her chronic halitosis. The anxiety caused by Morgan’s chronic bad breath — and those who picked on her because of it — has left a lasting scar, though. “I still back away slightly when people come close to me, like when they want to show me something on their phone,” she says. “I’ll always be uncomfortable sitting close to people who aren’t my husband or my siblings.”

On the flip side, such hardships also managed to help mold Morgan into a better person. “This issue has made me very understanding and sympathetic toward people with other bodily issues, like acne, dandruff, psoriasis or body odor,” she says. “Sometimes mainstream ‘treatments’ aren’t enough, and there isn’t much that can be done. So I never judge people or make them feel bad about bodily issues like that. I think it made me a more compassionate person.”