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Ask Dr. Sears: Cures for Bad Breath

Q. My toddler has bad breath. What causes it, and is there anything I can do?

A. There are various reasons a child might have this problem. Here are the most common ones and remedies for each:

  • A postnasal drip due to a cold, allergies, or a chronic sinus infection. When mucus collects in the sinuses and nasal passages and drips down the throat onto the tongue, the bacteria in the mouth decompose the proteins in it, which, in turn, give off malodorous sulfide gases. If you suspect this is the cause (a persistent cough, eye drainage, and a tickling in the throat are the most common signs), have your doctor examine your child for postnasal drip and, if confirmed, recommend treatment.
  • Decaying food trapped between teeth, which can be avoided by brushing twice a day. I don't advise using mouthwash, since it may contain dyes, alcohol, and other chemicals harmful to kids, especially because young children typically swallow it. Plus, it tends merely to mask the problem.
  • A stuck foreign object (such as a pea, a bean, or even a tiny piece of a toy) in a child's nose. It can block nasal drainage, which then stagnates and releases a bad odor from one nostril. If you think this is the case, don't try to remove the object yourself, as there's a danger that your child could aspirate it. Instead, have him examined by a doctor.
  • Dry mouth. When saliva dries out, more bacteria grow, producing foul-smelling gases. To prevent this from happening, make sure your child gets several glasses of water each day.

Try these measures and then follow up with the "sniff test" to see whether they're working. If your little one's breath still isn't any sweeter, take him to the dentist, who can check for tooth decay.