How To Tell Someone They Have Bad Breath

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woman whispering a secret to her friend

The plague of bad breath; sometimes it’s hard not to put your foot in your mouth, especially if someone else’s mouth smells like feet! As a general dentist, I have immunity when it comes to discussing halitosis with my patients – or my wife, who eats enough garlic to fend off Dracula. But what if you need to tell someone they have bad breath . . .

Why Don’t They Smell It?

There are many reasons why someone (else’s) mouth can smell like a sewer, including: food, tobacco, poor dental hygiene, and health problems such as sinus infections, acid reflux and lactose intolerance. The problem with bad breath is that it’s more of a problem for everyone else than it is for the offender. Unlike ‘mouth breathing,’ it is talking that brings out odors from the back of the mouth (where bad breath originates).

Notice if you huff a puff of breath into your hand, it generally won’t give an indication of how your mouth smells, because your throat is used differently when you talk versus breathe. People tend to become desensitized to their own smells, so it’s hard for someone to notice if they habitually reek like cheese that’s been left in the fridge past it’s sell-by date.

How Do I Tell Them?

Mouthwash won’t make it go away (for long) – so as tempting as it may be, don’t bother leaving a travel-sized bottle on a co-worker’s desk and hope they’ll get the hint.

Generally speaking, these are the sorts of conversations that you want to have in private, as opposed to around the Keurig machine at the office, or copying this post to your Facebook page and tagging them. Let etiquette prevail and start by telling the person you believe there is something they would want to know, and you aren’t sure if they are aware of the problem or not.

bad breath cartoon

If you know the person is sensitive, you may need to be even more cautious in your approach. Delicately bring up the issue by carrying mints with you. Take one yourself first and then offer one to your friend who has bad breath. If the person doesn’t accept, give them a nudge and simply say, “I think you should.”

Consider these pointers if you’re struggling with the need to let your boyfriend/girlfriend/office crush/parent/teenage boy that they have bad breath:

  • Choose the right time and place. Privacy matters!
  • Be gentle. Approach the topic with kindness and sensitivity.
  • Use “I” statements- I’ve noticed something I think you would want to know.
  • Suggest practical solutions that can help -chewing sugar-free gum, using mouthwash, seeing a dentist.
  • Respect their response!

Failing that, you could do what I did, which was to down about 10 of those synthetic garlic capsules and then go find my wife.

For real life scenarios, check out Colgate’s quiz to find out how good you are at breaking the bad breath news without stepping on any toes. UPDATE: That quiz I referenced is no longer around, but you can take a look at what it WAS via the handy dandy wayback machine here.

And if you suspect you might have bad breath, I wrote this article about preventing it.

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