Discussing a partner's bad breath.
January 11, 2010 9:31 AM   Subscribe

How do you talk to your partner about their bad breath?

When we first started seeing each other, I realized that her breath wasn't exactly minty fresh. I just put it off as a one-off thing, we all get bad breath sometimes.

However, I realized it pretty much ranges from very bad to terrible. I discussed with her in regular conversation once about how often she brushes her teeth, if she brushes her tongue and cheek, to which she said sometimes.

I personally have very good hygiene, as I have spent a fortune on braces, so I take very good care of my oral hygiene.

Sometimes I am blunt and insensitive, so I'd appreciate advice on how to bring up such a sensitive topic. Once it was so bad it actually completely turned me off while we were getting intimate, but I didn't tell her what the reason was, and didn't bring it up right then.

I'd like to bring it up. In person, on the phone? How?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My wife goes "God damn your breath stinks, get away from me." That works.
posted by xmutex at 9:34 AM on January 11, 2010 [19 favorites]

In person, NOT in bed (obviously), and with compassion as it's a problem we're all prone to. I know I'm grateful when my husband tells me directly that my breath is bad. As embarrassing as it may be, it's still better than breathing funkily all over everyone without knowing about it. Your partner may have a post-nasal drip issue that she's unaware of, which is not really helped by tooth brushing except to mask the odor with the mintiness of toothpaste for a short time. A trip to her regular doctor or ENT may be in order if she doesn't have any dental problems. Good luck!
posted by chihiro at 9:39 AM on January 11, 2010

First off, if her breath really is "terrible", then I doubt it's an issue with her hygiene. I rarely if ever brush my tongue (not to mention my cheeks???), and my breath is normally inoffensive. If she brushes her teeth once or twice a day and still had terrible breath, it may be a sign of a much more serious health problem.

Second off, you describe this woman as "your partner", not just a woman you're casually dating, so I think in many cases you can put politeness aside. Imagine if YOU had really really bad breath but didn't realize it. How would you want your partner to tell you?
posted by muddgirl at 9:40 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

Tell her it's a bonerkiller and you are losing altitude rapidly. Seriously, in person, and gently. "Did you know that bad oral hygiene can lead to...?"
posted by fixedgear at 9:40 AM on January 11, 2010

Ask her if she's flossing. Then get her to go to the doctor to see if she's got tonsil stones, post-nasal drip, ketosis, an oral infection....in other words, treat it like any other health issue.
posted by availablelight at 9:51 AM on January 11, 2010

Hmm, generally I'd advocate being super gentle and sensitive, but I think that might actually escalate the situation and make it feel more shameful for her. In this case I think a few very casual/lighthearted prods about it might actually be the more face-saving (for her) way to handle it. I'm imagining a scenario where you're starting to smooch each other and you say, "Baby! Your breath stinks! Go brush so we can make out!" or something.
posted by serazin at 9:53 AM on January 11, 2010

Oh god. I'm in the same position right now. We're both very direct, honest people, but I started out obliquely, with a little guile, by asking if he had brushed his teeth this morning, or asking what he had for lunch, stuff like that. ("Wow! Did you have extra onions on that sub?") Then I got to the point, and mentioned it was better to hear it from me than someone at work, for example. And then I remembered that his mother was not well equipped to be a mother, and probably didn't (a) nag/remind him when he was a kid to brush every morning and night and (b) more than likely didn't take him to the dentist very often. Long story short, I convinced him to go to the dentist, and that might be the way to go. Bad breath can be a sign of gum disease or advancing tooth decay, IIRC although IANAD. Plus, many women are fairly involved in their own wellness and act accordingly, so if you position it as a health issue, she might not be too terribly offended.
posted by scratch at 10:02 AM on January 11, 2010

I agree that if it's really bad and consistent it's probably not a hygiene issue but a related health issue. I would tell her gently, in person, and then hug her really hard afterwards. Let her get upset or offended or whatever and leave it at that. And if you don't see her actively addressing the issue, don't kiss her mouth the next time you are in bed together, she'll get the idea.
posted by gillianr at 10:06 AM on January 11, 2010

IANAD, nor any other kind of health professional.

Of course this is a health issue. I think she should ask a doctor, but tongue-brushing and mouthwash can do an okay job of masking many people's mouth odor for short periods of time. Can she brush several times daily until she gets an appointment with her doc?

Some probably harmless things to try in the meantime:
-buy some nasal strips for sleeping (Breathe Right is one brand)
-sleep in different positions
-reduce dairy products at some or all meals

Don't forget to keep a little journal while experimenting with these factors. Some or all of the info could be useful for her doctor to make a diagnosis.
posted by tantivy at 10:09 AM on January 11, 2010

my boyfriend just tells me my breath stinks in a joking way and offers me some mouthwash or mints. and this happens quite often as I drink a lot of coffee and that gives me horrible breath.

I don't even think you need to dedicate a "serious" talk to this topic. makes it sound like she has a disease or huge problem. it's not a big deal just say i have mouthwash or mints, want some?

my boyfriend, by offering mouthwash and mints, has actually helped me keep better oral hygiene. Now I use mouthwash regularly and go to the dentist for regular teeth cleaning.
posted by frozenyogurt at 10:10 AM on January 11, 2010

All of us in my circle of friends (men and women) carry gum/mints/breath freshener on our persons and we offer it routinely to each other when we meet or after we eat, etc. None of us have a breath problem per se and this "ritual" prevents it from ever becoming an issue. Generally, someone takes out a piece and offers it around or people ask.

So, be in the habit of carrying something with you from now onk USING IT YOUERSELF, and offering it to her routinely. I'm not saying it's your responsibility to keep her breath fresh, but at least you have something to combat the smell until it is addressed satisfactorily. Don't be a jerk by leaning in for a kiss, wrinkling your nose and withdrawing to offer the mint. Make it a part of YOUR hygiene routine and she'll get the hint, I think.
posted by elle.jeezy at 10:14 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

"So be in the habit of carrying something with you from now on, USING IT YOURSELF, and offering it t her routinely."
posted by elle.jeezy at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2010

If her breath is always terrible, it's almost certainly not a hygeine issue. Her breath wouldn't suck for the first few hours after brushing, were that the case.

Just be honest and tell her it's driving you crazy. If she sees a dentist or doc have her bring up tonsil stones, nasal drip, acid reflux, etc., because these are all common culprits and mds are human too.
posted by shownomercy at 10:16 AM on January 11, 2010

It could be an issue with sinuses, allergies, or some other sort of post nasal drip thing. Frame it as concern for her health, that you think she has a symptom of such a thing, and should have it checked by a doctor.
posted by kellyblah at 10:20 AM on January 11, 2010

The methodology can vary but I will say that you have to tell her straight. What you don't have to do is

- offer general advice on oral hygiene
- phrase it as some sort of question based on "Honey, did you know.." hygeine factoids
- say things like "Oh do you smell that? what is that?"
- offer random probing questions about diet, alcohol or anything else
- offer mints repeatedly or leave other "hints" lying around

None of it properly addresses the issue and none of it is likely to help any time soon.

You could probably try something like, "Hey, this isn't very easy for me to do but I know you'd rather I told you about it, your breath has been smelling strongly recently and I thought you might want to know, least of all because it may be a medical issue." If you don't want to bring up medical issues then tell her you wouldn't want someone else pointing it out.
posted by fire&wings at 10:20 AM on January 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

Assuming she's interested in fixing this when you talk to her about it, try eating a few sprigs of parsley each day; if the odor is coming from her stomach (which is certainly possible, given its constant nature) it's quite amazing how much some parsley can help if it's eaten consistently.
posted by davejay at 10:21 AM on January 11, 2010

Oh, and remember: if you're in a healthy, committed relationship, things that might normally be taboo to discuss (say, bad breath or nasty, nasty farting) should really be the kinds of things you can trust each other to bring up if needed. That's one of the benefits of having a partner.
posted by davejay at 10:22 AM on January 11, 2010

oh and one thing my boyfriend observed was that I don't drink enough water. Dry mouth causes bad breath. Is this the case with her too?
posted by frozenyogurt at 10:36 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the reason this conversation is so uncomfortable is that it feels very condescending, like you're telling a fellow adult that they have unknowingly been failing at something they should have learned as a kid. It seems like you are assuming there's something wrong with her oral hygiene practices, so no wonder you don't know how to say it politely.

But as others have pointed out above, there are lots of other potential reasons for bad breath that have nothing to do with oral hygiene. Post-nasal drip, tonsilloliths, diabetes, and infections are all possibilities. So I think your best course of action is to give this girl the benefit of the doubt, that she really does know how to brush her teeth, and address it as a medical issue.

Maybe something like, "I'm really uncomfortable saying this, but a lot of times your breath is a problem when we're getting intimate. I've heard that there can be medical reasons for that kind of thing, so would you consider checking with a doctor about it? I just love making out with you and hate how distracting this is." And obviously, don't say this when you're in the middle of things or just afterward. Talk about it when you're nowhere near an intimate situation.

If she knows deep down that she should be doing a better job with the brushing and flossing, this should inspire her to do it. Sometimes people are lazy about things when they don't think anyone will notice, but finding out that someone does notice will spur them to action. On the other hand, maybe she really is conscientious about the oral hygiene and a doctor will be able to help with whatever the extra problem is.
posted by vytae at 10:44 AM on January 11, 2010 [3 favorites]

The way I do it is kiss my guy, lingeringly, then draw back and say, "mm, could you brush your teeth before..." and raise my eyebrows. Playtime ensues. He's not great about remembering to do it on his own, but that's all I have to do to get great breath. Repeat as necessary, and lay in a stock of sugar-free breath mints.

You don't have to be a jerk about it, just make it clear that being affectionate is a lot more fun when no one has offensive breath.
posted by arnicae at 10:53 AM on January 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

lmao @xmutex. I usually wave a hand in front of my face and say "whew! what's going on in there?" and then he brushes. He does the same to me. I'm okay with it. It's a give and take. Of course, we've been together a few years.
posted by bunny hugger at 11:02 AM on January 11, 2010

I recall a convo between my dad and stepmom....

Dad: Hey, do you still have those certs?

Stepmom (rummaging thru her purse): here ya go

Dad: they're not for me, they're for you

I guess I wouldn't advise trying that method.
posted by ian1977 at 11:34 AM on January 11, 2010 [6 favorites]

"I" statements really work here.

"I've got a pretty sensitive nose, and I sometimes notice that your breath smells pretty strong to me. I have even gotten turned off the sexing once or twice because of how I reacted to your breath; that's how sensitive my nose is."

On the other hand, it's not like not brushing your cheeks = "poor oral hygiene" so it might actually be you. In any case, talk about your stuff, not her stuff.

I have horrible breath in the morning, probably because of my sinus issues, and my husband says "Go brush your teeth so I can kiss you" and it doesn't freak me out.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:10 PM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is embarrassing but whatever.

Like frozenyogurt, I've had issues with oral hygiene myself. It's just something my father enforced too much (standing/hovering, counting, insulting you/doing it for you if he felt you were incompetent) and my mother never at all, so it is something that I put in the back of my mind as I grew up resenting it.

It also never helped that growing up I had very good dental care and even though I hadn't brushed or flossed, dentists always ooh'd and aah'd over my teeth.

Several boyfriends have mentioned this to me and watching the ways they've gone about it is interesting. It should be noted, however, that I was well aware of this issue before any of them came along and once my father was out of the picture (middle school/high school), my mother was constantly getting after me for it -- although at the time I was also going through an intense bout of depression so I wasn't really doing anything good for myself and she was constantly belittling everything from the way I dressed to how I walked. So again, it was an issue of rebellion.

Unfortunately as an adult, it comes back to haunt you and with the everyday stresses of life, it gets pushed even further back on my things-to-do than it ever did. The coffee and lack of water really just make everything worse.

So now that the background check of this answer is over, here's what boyfriends have said and done and how I'd recommend going about this.

The first few mentions are just casual "Oh you have morning breath, mine is probably bad too -- sorry!" It doesn't sound like you two live together, but if you spend weekends together or even a few mornings each month, make it a point to brush together (without emphasizing it -- just have it be a part of the routine; shower, brush, get dressed, make out with your newly fresh breath). My partners were always much more into it after we'd brushed, so it was a good reward system. After doing this with significant others on a normal basis, I started implementing it on my own. Unfortunately, it hasn't stuck, but it's something I'm much more aware of when I am about to go out.

Something I'd caution against that some people have suggested is blatantly telling her that her breath is rancid. It doesn't sound like you two are at a point in the relationship to be talking like that, and she might take it the wrong way and it may blow up to be a huge ordeal or trigger emotions like guilt or unworthiness on top of any possible emotional scarring associated with it. She might start using alternative methods (mints, certain foods, etc.) instead of actually brushing her teeth because of any possible stigma she has towards it.

When you have this sort of issue in a relationship (intimate or otherwise), it is never good. It makes you look lazy and makes people question other hygiene-related issues and how responsible that person is otherwise ("If they can't even brush their teeth.. !"). In an intimate relationship, it is even worse as she is sharing whatever is in her mouth with you. I'm not exactly sure how to address this in a manner that could be misconstrued, so if anyone has any ideas, that would be great. My only recommendation, again, is to make it an activity you both do without implying that you're only doing it with her because she can't do it on her own.

That said, it definitely sounds like she might have something else going on there and she should definitely get it checked out by a doctor/dentist.

Also, everything vytae said above is spot on.
posted by june made him a gemini at 12:39 PM on January 11, 2010

I should also mention that in situations where a partner has covered their nose, sneered and/or made an off-the-wall statement about it, I was never really able to recover and would literally stop talking and start breathing through my nose -- avoiding all physical contact with them for pretty much the duration of the relationship. Obviously there are a lot of other issues at play here, but in the event that she isn't aware of the stench or isn't accustomed to such "open" conversations, she might distance herself instead of actually targeting the problem.

Hopefully this wouldn't be the case, but these things are incredibly personal and really put a dent in some of us, so be kind :)
posted by june made him a gemini at 12:49 PM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

Does her diet include milk? In addition to the common horrors of garlic and onions, milk has a nasty habit of rotting in the mouth. If she drinks lattes that might be why. There is also the possibility of underlying medical issues so a doctor visit is a good idea.
posted by chairface at 1:10 PM on January 11, 2010

Lead by example: While at a store, pick up some flossers, commenting that your breath gets unpleasant when you don't floss. Buy sugarless gum(xylitol helps), mentioning that you haven't been to the dentist recently and are worried about your breath; offering her some gum. Make a point of brushing after a meal, again noting that you like to keep the breath fresh and teeth healthy. If she asks how her breath is, be gently honest,.
posted by theora55 at 2:36 PM on January 11, 2010

What Sidhedevil said - "Go brush your teeth so I can kiss you." There's really no need to elaborate and cause further embarassment.
posted by Space Kitty at 2:45 PM on January 11, 2010

Dehydration can also cause bad breath. That one is an easy fix.
posted by zinfandel at 5:48 PM on January 11, 2010

Be kind and direct. "Commenting," "mentioning," and "noting" are the mating cry of the asshole.
posted by Sallyfur at 8:15 PM on January 11, 2010 [2 favorites]

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