Dentistry clinic gets tough with bad breath

by Hilary Thomson

Staff writer

Secretly worried about your breath? Worry no more. A scientific analysis is now available at B.C.'s first breath testing clinic in UBC's public Dental Clinic.

"Although breath testing devices are becoming fashionable, most are not accurate," says oral biologist Don Brunette, who is associate dean in the Faculty of Dentistry. "This clinic provides an objective measure for people concerned about their breath."

Bad breath is more than a cosmetic concern. Measuring levels of certain chemicals in breath is useful in diagnosing a variety of conditions, including illnesses of the liver, lung or gastrointestinal tract, says Brunette.

The clinic is the only one in Canada to use gas chromatography as a measuring device. Pioneered by Prof. Emeritus Joe Tonzetich when he joined the faculty in 1968, the system is too complex to be widely available but is unique in providing a precise reading of sulphur compounds, high levels of which are the basis of halitosis, or bad breath.

Using a syringe, an exact volume of air is sucked out of the patient's mouth and introduced into the chromatograph. The machine measures and records amounts of two sulphur compounds -- hydrogen sulphide and methylmercaptan. The clinic's director, Ken Yaegaki of the Dept. of Oral Biological and Medical Sciences, interprets the numeric information.

"I already have medical and dental information about the patient from our interview before the test. The chromatograph readings give me detailed scientific information to add to those data," he says.

Yaegaki also conducts a subjective test by sniffing the patient's breath. The patient sits behind a screen and exhales into a tube while Yaegaki assesses it from the other side.

Yaegaki, who is an internationally recognized researcher in breath malodour, offers patients a treatment plan and evaluates the effect of any control measures. If the cause of the odour is unrelated to dental or oral conditions, patients are referred to their physician.

"There are a variety of causes of bad breath," says Yaegaki. "The most common is tongue coating, gum disease or throat inflammation. Illnesses such as sinusitis and some medications can also create bad breath."

For anyone concerned about bad breath, Yaegaki recommends cleaning the tongue, especially the back portion. This reduces any coating that may be producing bacteria which, when exposed to air, decompose and smell bad.

Special tongue brushes, with a short handle like a toothbrush and a tiny crescent of bristles at one end, are widely available in Japan and allow for scrubbing the back of the tongue without creating a gag response.

Mouthwashes can provide a masking effect for up to an hour but no real remedy, according to Yaegaki. The most effective mouthwashes contain zinc or hydrogen peroxide. These ingredients can inhibit the sulphur compounds produced by mouth bacteria.

The first visit to the clinic takes about one hour and costs $150. If measurement shows significant breath odour, a second visit costing $200 and lasting about three hours is scheduled to determine its possible cause. Subsequent visits cost $50 each.

The clinic is open Monday and Friday mornings. Individuals may make clinic appointments by calling 822-8028.