File image: A combination of pictures showing men from northern Brazil smiling. Reuters

It can be an incredibly humiliating condition that causes one to retreat from normal social interaction for fear of others catching a whiff of lies inside.

Bad breath – a condition most people will suffer from in varying degrees at some point of their lives.

But what causes it?

"Research has shown that more than 80% to 90% of causes of bad breath are due to causes in the mouth. The remaining 10% is due to other existing conditions in the body. The main cause of bad breadth in the mouth is due to bacteria. These hide in decayed teeth, faulty or leaking fillings or restorations, in diseased gums, on the top surface of the tongue," Dr Nosipho Mzobe (crt) , head of education at the South African Dental Association said.

While it was difficult ascertaining the number of people suffering from it in the country as it was a "subjective" in nature, Mzobe added that Hallitosis (it's medical term), could also be due to infections in the mouth such as throat infection, tonsillitis, bacterial or fungal infections and oral cancer.

Lifestyle habits could also cause bad breath, she said, such as smoking and drinking alcohol while certain foods such as garlic, onions, cabbage, radishes also played a role.

"It is sad to say that the approach to oral health care by South African is more for curative reasons and not for preventative reasons," Mzobe lamented.

"Due to several reasons South Africans seek care from oral health care professionals when there already is an existing problem. If South Africans could adopt a preventative approach to oral health care; diseases such as dental caries and gum disease can be managed appropriately and in due time."

The World Health Organisation describes oral health as being "free of chronic mouth and facial pain, oral and throat cancer, oral sores, birth defects such as cleft lip and palate, periodontal (gum) disease, tooth decay and tooth loss, and other diseases and disorders that affect the mouth and oral cavity."

And while the seemingly obvious thing to do to for someone who realises they have persistent bad breath – would be to brush their teeth and tongue – Mzobe said it didn't quite work that way as each case was different.

First line of treatment would be to limit the bacterial load in the mouth, she said, this was done by practising good oral hygiene habits which included brushing and flossing of the teeth and the tongue.

"Visiting a dentist who will clean the hard to reach areas in the mouth by scaling and polishing of the teeth (would also help). The dentist would place fillings on the carious teeth and start the patient on a management program if the patient has gum disease," she stated.

"If the patient has an infection in the mouth. The dentist would prescribe medication to treat the infection. The patient would have to change their tooth brush once the infection had cleared."

If the bad breadth is caused by foods or lifestyle habits, such as drinking alcohol and smoking, the could be readily solved by cleansing of the mouth with toothbrush and toothpaste and the use of mouth rinses.

For those who could not afford to visit a private dentist, Mzobe advised these cost-effective tips:

– Reduce bacterial load in the mouth by brushing and flossing of teeth at least twice a day.

- Drink water after meals to flush away food debris from the teeth.

– Chew sugar free gum after meals.

– Go to the local clinic for regular check-ups by the state dentists at least twice a year. You can have a scaling and polish done at set clinics and hospitals which will definitely help in maintaining good oral hygiene.