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12 Causes of Bad Breath in Kids (And What to do About It)

By August 13, 2021Oral Health
bad breath in kids

You snuggle up with your kiddo and when they open their mouth, you notice their breath smells less than pleasant. Whether it’s the first time you’ve detected your child’s bad breath or it’s been going on for a while, you’re not the only parent dealing with it. In fact, in a 2014 study published in the International Journal of Dental Hygiene, 37.6% of the child participants had halitosis (bad breath). 

As a kids’ dentist in Brooklyn, halitosis is something we see frequently. Parents ask us: Why does my toddler’s breath smell so bad? Should I be concerned if my child has a white tongue and bad breath? Is there anything my teenager can do for their halitosis?

Well, we have answers for you! In this post, we’ll be talking about the common causes of bad breath in kids, how to get rid of it and when it should be evaluated by a pediatric dentist

But First…What is Halitosis?

According to the American Dental Association, halitosis is the technical term for chronic bad breath. Halitosis can originate in the mouth or the smell can be exhaled by the lungs. Chronic bad breath (halitosis) and acute bad breath, like a case of morning breath, are often caused by different things.

What Causes Bad Breath in Kids? 12 Common Culprits

1. Poor Oral Hygiene

The most common cause of bad breath in kids is poor oral hygiene. If plaque (the sticky bacterial film that forms on the teeth) and food debris aren’t removed with proper brushing and flossing, the bacteria in the mouth have something to feed on. As they eat, they release smelly volatile sulfur compounds.

2. Eating Pungent Foods

Eating foods with strong odors can lead to your child having bad breath. Digestion actually starts with that first bite of food, and whatever your child eats begins breaking down in their mouth, which can cause an unpleasant smell. 

Sulfur-producing foods like garlic and onions are especially notorious for causing bad breath in kids (and adults). The sulfur compounds take up residence in your child’s mouth and are even absorbed into their bloodstream. For several hours after eating, the smell from the compounds will continue to be released when your child exhales. Fortunately, it’s temporary and nothing to be worried about. Unfortunately, however, brushing the teeth won’t get rid of it. 

3. Tongue Coating

Does your child have a white tongue and bad breath? Another extremely common cause of bad breath in toddlers, kids and teens is the development of a tongue coating. Odor-causing bacteria, food and decomposing skin cells often get stuck on the back third of the tongue. As you can imagine, these things don’t smell good as they break down. 

So, why would a child’s tongue be white in addition to their bad breath? The white appearance is from all of the gunk trapped in the between the tiny bumps on the tongue, known as papillae. Brushing the tongue whenever they brush their teeth will help get rid of both your child’s bad breath and the white tongue coating. 

4. Tooth Decay and Dental Infections

A cavity, or tooth decay, could be behind your child’s halitosis. Not only do the cavity-causing bacteria release odors, food is also more likely to get stuck in the damaged portion of the tooth and is harder to brush away, which compounds the smell. Other issues like mouth sores or a dental abscess, since it’s an infection, can also cause halitosis. 

5. Gum Disease

Gum disease is linked to bad breath in people of all ages, including children. What is gum disease? Gum disease refers to inflammation or infection of the gum tissue that supports the teeth. While children aren’t likely to develop periodontitis, the advanced form of gum disease, they do commonly get the less severe type called gingivitis. 

Gingivitis occurs when soft plaque and tartar (hardened plaque) build up on the teeth and under the gumline. The bacteria and toxins in the plaque infect the gums, causing inflammation and persistent bad breath that doesn’t go away after brushing the teeth. Infections usually don’t smell good, and gum disease is no exception. 

6. Loose Pediatric Crowns or Fillings

If your child has a dental crown or filling that is damaged or becomes loose, food and bacteria can get trapped underneath it. Not surprisingly, this will cause kids to have halitosis. 

7. Not Enough Saliva

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, saliva is an oral health superhero. Spit helps to wash away food debris and bacteria in the mouth and neutralizes cavity-causing acids. When saliva is flowing, bad breath is usually kept at bay. 

At night, when kids are sleeping, saliva production slows way down and the bacteria in their mouth hang out, which is why they often wake up with morning breath. Morning breath can even cause bad breath in babies and toddlers since everyone, no matter how old or young, has bacteria in their mouth. This type of bad breath is temporary and will disappear once your child brushes their teeth and their saliva gets going again. 

Dry mouth, technically called xerostomia, also causes bad breath in kids. With dry mouth, not enough saliva is being produced and, similar to morning breath, food particles and bacteria sit on the teeth, creating a bad smell. Unlike morning breath, however, bad breath from dry mouth isn’t always temporary since the condition can be chronic and due to certain medications or health issues. 

8. Large Tonsils

Kids with large tonsils or tonsils that have deep pits in them may find their breath smells bad. This is because the tonsils become a magnet for food, bacteria and nasal secretions to accumulate. Tonsil stones, called tonsilloliths, can also form in the pits and emit an odor as they decompose. 

9. Allergies or Infections in the Ears, Nose or Throat

Viral and bacterial infections, such as strep throat, can create a bad smell in the oral cavity. Additionally, postnasal drip, like kids get with allergies or a sinus infection, is linked with bad breath. The bacteria in the mouth feeds on the mucus and secretions that drip down the throat and onto the tongue. As the bacteria snack, they give off gases that don’t smell good. These causes of bad breath are often accompanied by a runny nose, congestion and fever. Visit your pediatrician to confirm the diagnosis and get treatment, if needed. 

10. Mouth breathing

A study published in the journal Clinics found a correlation between mouth breathing and halitosis in children. The researchers posited that the mouth becomes dry because it’s open all night, which leads to bad breath in the morning. Mouth breathing can be temporary and due to a child having nasal congestion or it can be a habit.

11. Certain Health Conditions

Certain health conditions, including diabetes, gastroesophageal reflux, thrush and, in rare cases, liver and kidney issues, can cause bad breath in children. While the vast majority of instances of halitosis aren’t serious, if the other causes of bad breath have been ruled out, bring it up with your child’s pediatrician. 

12. Something Stuck in the Nose

And, last but not least, when it comes to what can cause bad breath in toddlers, we have to mention an object stuck in the nose. Babies and toddlers are known to put food and toys in their nose and if the foregin body gets lodged up there, it may lead to inflammation, a runny nose and a foul odor. If you think your child stuck something up their nose and they also have a fever and dark green mucus, seek medical attention right away. 

How to Get Rid of Bad Breath in a Child

If your child has bad breath, it’s tempting to hand them some mints or a breath strip, but these only mask the problem and aren’t even all that effective. While it will depend on the underlying cause of your child’s halitosis, the following bad breath remedies and tips will be successful in most cases:

Teach kids to practice good oral hygiene.

Have them brush their teeth at least twice a day for two minutes each time and floss once daily. When brushing, be sure your child is brushing every surface of each tooth and along the gumline, as well as thoroughly brushing their tongue to remove any coating. 

To get rid of bad breath in babies or younger toddlers, you’ll have to do the brushing and flossing for them. While older toddlers and preschoolers can begin brushing on their own, supervise their oral hygiene routine until about age 7 or 8. 

Stick with a healthy, well-rounded diet.

And enjoy sugary treats and starchy foods like chips in moderation. The bacteria in the mouth love sugars and starches, so limiting these types of foods will go a long way in preventing bad breath and cavities. 

Keep your child hydrated by having them drink plenty of water.

Water helps send plaque, bacteria and food particles packing and fights dry mouth. 

Don’t underestimate the power of breakfast.

When kids eat and drink in the morning, it stimulates their saliva production and reduces morning breath. 

Have kids chew sugarless gum that contains xylitol after meals and snacks or whenever their mouth feels dry.

While this tip isn’t one of the best remedies for bad breath in toddlers, it can be helpful for older kids who won’t swallow the gum or leave it in strange places. Chewing gum boosts the amount of saliva in the mouth, which, in turn, is like a bath for the teeth, removing smelly bacteria. Xylitol is thought to decrease the amount of plaque and bacteria and lower the risk of cavities. 

Get to the bottom of your child’s mouth breathing.

When mouth breathing is a habit, it can lead to a number of oral health complications in addition to bad breath. Your pediatric dentist is an expert in oral habits, including mouth breathing, and will be able to offer you guidance. 

Keep up with your child’s regular dental exams and cleanings.

The dentist will examine your child’s teeth and gums to be sure they’re in top-notch shape. If your child has restorations like a dental crown or filling, they’ll check those too. If the dentist does identify any issues, catching them early will make treatment easier and less invasive and prevent halitosis from developing. Plus, during a cleaning, hardened plaque is removed, which also helps in the bad breath department, as well as in preventing cavities and gingivitis. 

If a health condition or medication is causing your child’s bad breath, talk with their pediatrician.

Often, treating the condition will stop halitosis in its tracks. If a medication is behind the dry mouth and bad breath, and it’s embarrassing your child, it wouldn’t hurt to see if there is an alternative medication they can try. 

When to Call the Pediatric Dentist About Bad Breath in Children

If your child has tooth pain or red, inflamed, bleeding gums along with bad breath, schedule a visit with your pediatric dentist. Your child could have a dental issue, such as a cavity or gingivitis, that requires treatment. 

In cases of bad breath accompanied by a fever and other symptoms, call your pediatrician. These are signs of an infection and illnesses like strep throat will require an antibiotic to treat. 

Most of the time, however, bad breath in kids isn’t an emergency. Try our tips and remedies to see if your child’s breath improves. If it doesn’t, let your dentist know at your child’s next appointment. 

Key Takeaways:

  • Bad breath in kids is common. It can be chronic (halitosis) or acute like morning breath.
  • The most common causes of halitosis in kids are poor oral hygiene, cavities and gingivitis. Bad breath can also be due to smelly foods, mouth breathing, loose dental restorations, dry mouth, infections in the mouth, ears, nose or throat, and certain health conditions and medications.
  • When it comes to how to get rid of bad breath in a child, start with diligent brushing and flossing, eating a well-rounded, healthy diet, and regular exams and cleanings at your pediatric dentist. Other bad breath remedies include giving kids sugarless gum to chew, keeping them hydrated, not skipping breakfast, and taking care of medical conditions or dental issues.
  • Most cases of bad breath in kids aren’t an indication of anything serious and are easily fixed. If your child’s bad breath is persistent and doesn’t improve even with good oral hygiene, talk to your pediatric dentist. 

Schedule a Visit With a Kids’ Dentist in Brooklyn Today!

If you’re looking for a kids’ dentist in Brooklyn to get to the root of your child’s bad breath, schedule a visit at Bitesize Pediatric Dentistry in DUMBO, Park Slope or Williamsburg. One of our friendly, experienced pediatric dentists will chat with you about your child’s health and medical history and perform an exam. Once the dentist determines what’s causing your child’s bad breath, they can offer recommendations or create a personalized treatment plan to eliminate it. 

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