It’s awkward. You’re talking to someone, and you notice your conversational partner has really horrible breath, aka halitosis. Do you blurt it out? Drop a hint? Soldier on? Make a quick getaway? Your decision depends upon two things: timing and your relationship with the other person.
You might wonder why this person is oblivious to the smell. Many people become desensitized to their bodily essence, or odors [source: Dellorto]. So while someone else’s bad breath may completely overwhelm you, it’s entirely possible that he or she just can’t smell it at all. What’s more, bacteria in the mouth, irregular dental hygiene, dietary choices, medications and certain medical conditions can all contribute to halitosis, so the offending party might have larger health concerns than scoring well on the minty fresh spectrum.
Let’s start with the easiest scenario: It’s someone you know whose breath is usually fine … just not today. Offer some sugarless gum or mints – and take some yourself, too. If your friend declines, gently insist: “I think you really should.” Most folks will get the hint.
It’s trickier when someone has a persistent breath odor. If it’s a stranger — say, someone you see on your commute every day but have never spoken to — don’t mention it. But if it’s someone you do know, it’s better to speak up, if only to alert him or her to a potential dental or health problem. If it’s someone you don’t know well, but will likely talk to again in a social setting, mention it to one of their friends or family members instead — someone with a tighter rapport, who can deliver the message in a less embarrassing way. If a coworker has persistent breath issues, you’re better off mentioning it to a supervisor than to the offending party. (Seriously, this is above your pay grade, unless you’re really, really good work friends!) When it’s your friend or family member with the problem, it’s important that you step in.
This is delicate news to break, so make sure the setting for your conversation is private. Unless there’s a way to fix the problem immediately — like if you have mints with you or know your friend is carrying a toothbrush — save the news for when it’s time to go. There’s no reason to make someone squirm self-consciously for hours if there’s nothing that can be done about it.
Choose your words carefully. “You have bad breath” is as tough to hear as it is to say. Acknowledge that he or she probably isn’t aware of the problem. Use gentle but accurate language. Try explaining that breath is perceptible or sharp rather than stinky. Yes, those are euphemisms, but they make the point and leave room for a little dignity.
If you can’t muster up the courage to have a face-to-face conversation with someone who routinely has bad breath, you can, as a very last resort, send an anonymous note. Your target might become a little a paranoid trying to guess the source, but ultimately, providing this information is useful and considerate. Bad breath can happen to anyone, so consider the notification a kindness, as well as a public service since the goal is fresher air for everyone.
And one last tip, just between us: Don’t try exhaling into your cupped hand to figure out what your breath smells like. To get a whiff of what’s actually going on in your mouth, you need to lick the back of your hand. After the saliva dries, inhale. That’s the real breath test.