Waiting to Exhale
Bad-breath device latest weapon in war against halitosis, but experts find limitations
David Lazarus, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, August 5, 2000
The self-confidence-crushing embarrassment didn’t really set in until “John,” on a whim, breathed against his bathroom mirror one morning and discovered why his friends and colleagues had been keeping their distance all these years.
“My breath smelled like how a rotten egg smelled,” he recalled. “Real acidy, you know? Real bad.”
John — he asked that his real name be withheld — knew he needed help, and quickly, and he found it at San Francisco’s Center for Breath Treatment, one of the nation’s leading bad-breath clinics.
(It turns out John may have understated the truly epic scale of his breath problem, but more on that later.)
Halitosis — the temporary, gamy- type breath many people experience after lunch, as well as the chronic variety that can prove life-altering for people like John — is among the most common afflictions for U.S. consumers.
According to Chicago market researcher Information Resources International, Americans spent nearly $3 billion during the past year on mouthwashes, breath fresheners and toothpastes.
And still the problem persists. Last month, a Japanese company introduced what it says is the first microchip-powered device to allow consumers to measure gases in their mouths — a high-tech alternative to the old standby of cupping one’s hand and exhaling.
Whether it actually works is another matter.
“Bad breath is one of the most obnoxious personal habits that exists,” said Carol Benson, new product development manager for the U.S. subsidiary of Tanita Corp., maker of the BreathAlert bad-breath monitor.
The device, about the size of a cigarette lighter, sells for $29.95 and is designed to measure concentrations of volatile sulfur compounds — the leading cause of halitosis.
Benson said BreathAlert was thoroughly tested at Tanita’s Tokyo lab, including checks of the device’s findings against those of scientists’ noses. She is confident her company at last has found a way to relieve anxiety among those who fear their breath constitutes a natural disaster.
“Absolutely not,” countered Dr. Fariba Younai, co-director of the Fresh Breath Clinic at the University of California at Los Angeles’ School of Dentistry. “Each individual is different.”
For a gadget such as BreathAlert to be truly effective, she said each unit would have to be calibrated to the mouths of individual users.
Dr. Tony Dailley, founder of the Center for Breath Treatment in San Francisco’s Financial District, said it may be possible to create a one-size-fits-all portable measuring device for bad breath — the Holy Grail for those in the halitosis field — but that his tests show BreathAlert isn’t it.
“There are too many false positives,” he explained. “This thing tells people they have a problem when they really don’t.”
As an experiment, a reporter recently tried out BreathAlert on himself and then was hooked up to Dailley’s more elaborate Halimeter, which also measures sulfur compounds in the mouth.
BreathAlert registered a 2 (slight halitosis) on its scale of 1 to 4. The Halimeter registered 30 (no halitosis) on a virtually open- ended scale.
“I tried the BreathAlert on myself,” Dailley said. “It told me I had severe halitosis.”
He shook his head. Dailley is, needless to say, a man who prides himself on possessing an unusually bacteria-free mouth. For it to be otherwise would be like a barber having persistent bad-hair days.
“If I don’t have clean breath,” Dailley pointed out, “I’m dead.”
Not that bad breath is a walk in the park for anyone else. “It’s frustrating,” said “Jack,” a South Bay railroad executive. “It erodes your confidence.”
In his case, the revelation of halitosis came gradually. “I started to sense people’s responses,” Jack said. “I became aware of people’s body language.”
For “Shelley,” who works for a Silicon Valley software developer, the unhappy truth came out only when a couple of friends took her aside one day and said she had to do something about her breath. This made her wonder about all those she’d met who had never said anything.
“It’s a little unsettling to think about all the times this could have been a problem,” Shelley observed.
But no one has more reason to look back on past encounters with a shudder than John, a retired South Bay airline worker. He’s the one who discovered that his mouth smelled like rotten eggs.
“He said that?” responded Dailley, who tackled John’s uniquely malodorous condition at the Center for Breath Treatment. “Try sewer
–sewer is more like it.”
John had — there’s no gentle way to say this — the absolute worst breath Dailley has ever come across. On the Halimeter, which registers 200 if a person has a severe case of halitosis, John initially logged in at a record- setting 1,150.
“His levels were so high, I thought the machine must be broken,” Dailley said. “His breath was so bad that after he walked in the door, the whole office was full of the odor. When he left, we had to air the place out.”
Dailley can talk this way now because John has managed to slay the troll that had been living in his mouth. Dailley now depicts John as the poster boy for breath improvement.
And he is quick to emphasize that others can follow suit.
“A lot of people don’t know that it can be done,” Dailley said. “Or they’ve given up because they’ve tried all the over-the-counter stuff.”
Just about anything you can buy at the store only masks the problem, he said. The leading mouthwashes, it turns out, only exacerbate a serious breath problem because they contain alcohol, which dries out the mouth.
For his patients, Dailley prescribes tongue scrapers — arguably the single-most- important tool in the war on halitosis — and special toothpastes and rinses unavailable to ordinary consumers.
He also recommends:
— Brushing one’s teeth and tongue several times a day, especially after meals.
— Drinking lots of water to minimize bacteria growth in the mouth.
— Skipping the Altoids and other breath maskers. If breath triage is required, try chewing a stick of gum, which gets the saliva flowing.
Dailley, a former dentist, sees about 100 patients a month at his clinic, some from as far away as Taiwan and the Philippines. Each pays a flat $550 for up to three visits.
Treatments vary depending on the nature of the problem. In most cases, Dailley investigates causes — periodontal troubles are a leading source of chronic halitosis — and then prescribes an appropriate course of action.
Sometimes it takes a bit of sleuthing. Dailley recalled one case where a woman’s halitosis — an especially nasty case — mysteriously emanated from her nose. X-rays revealed that a pea the woman had stuffed up her nostril as a child had remained lodged in her sinus.
“That thing was rotting in there for decades,” Dailley said.
While many people might cringe at hearing this story, Dailley broke out in a smile as he related the case of the missing pea. “To see people’s lives change,” he said, “that’s where I get my strokes.”
And what of John, the man with the sewer in his mouth? It’s been three years since he paid his first visit to Dailley’s clinic, and today he said his breath is “tolerable, like any normal person.”
Better still, he’s dating again.
“The ladies don’t back off like before,” he said. “It’s opened up a lot of doors, if you know what I mean.”
E-mail David Lazarus at davidlaz@ sfgate.com.
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