Bad Breath Intervention

Dear Helena,

A friend of mine has unholy halitosis and it really grosses me out. When we’re in a crowded bar, I dread him leaning in too close. If we’re eating dinner together, I always sit as far away as I can. I feel concerned for him as he is single and I worry that his bad breath may be driving girls away. Offering him a stick of gum doesn’t work as he usually refuses. And I can hardly offer him one every time I see him. Should I say something? If so, how can I draw his attention to the problem without hurting his feelings? —Minty Fresh

Dear Minty Fresh,

A stick of gum won’t banish chronic bad breath. And if you’re offering it as a hint, it’s way too subtle. The person will likely assume you’re just offering the pack out of politeness, because you’re having some. So you should say something.

Granted, you should accept your friends for who they are. If your friend has a discolored front tooth or needs to drop 20 pounds, you should keep it to yourself. But bad breath is different, because the sufferer is usually unaware of it. Dr. Anthony Dailley of the Center for Breath Treatment says it’s almost impossible to assess your own breath. “Oftentimes [my patients] had no idea until someone verbally told them.”

Nonetheless, performing a halitosis intervention is tricky. As with a drug- or alcohol-related intervention, you should only do it with close friends and family. They trust you and know you have their best interests at heart. Otherwise, the person may become hostile, and it’s just not worth the hassle.

Even if you’re close to the person, it’s tempting to do it anonymously. But if you send the person a virtual breath mint or leave a Post-it on his desk, he may torture himself wondering who did it. Or, says Dailley, “the person thinks it’s a joke or someone being nasty.”

If you want your friend to take you seriously, tell him face to face, alone. Dailley suggests using this simple formula: “What I’m about to tell you may surprise you. I’m telling you because I care about you and because I’d want someone to do this for me. You have bad breath.” I like Dailley’s approach. After such a dramatic buildup, your friend will probably be expecting you to tell him something really bad, like you slept with his wife. By comparison, bad breath won’t seem like a big deal.

Don’t just identify the problem. Suggest solutions too. Your friend’s dentist can identify if a dental issue is causing the odor. Gum disease can cause bad breath, although, says Dailley, “it has to be pretty severe and neglected.” Tooth decay can cause it too, but again, only if very advanced: “You could have 20 cavities and not have bad breath, but a monster black-hole cavity would do it.”

But, says Dailley, “really bad halitosis is generally not caused by plaque, which is a different kind of bacteria.” Your friend may need to visit a breath specialist, who can identify the numerous factors that can lead to halitosis. These include postnasal drip (often caused by allergies) and an excessively dry mouth. The specialist will likely advise a multipronged treatment regimen that will include keeping the tongue clean and better hydration.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to test Dailley’s halitosis intervention method because the two sufferers I know are not close friends. (Could there be a connection?) But according to Dailley, if you’re close to the person, you won’t suffer a shoot-the-messenger effect. Most of his patients learned of their problem from a friend or family member. “If telling someone is done in a constructive and tactful way, they’re very grateful.” It’s like when you tell someone he has spinach in his teeth—he’s more likely to feel annoyed with all the friends who didn’t say anything.

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.