Odor from the back of the tongue

Dr. Mel Rosenberg

05.09.09, 00:20

The tongue is probably the major source of oral malodor in healthy people. You might not believe such a statement, so I recommend the following experiment. Stick out your tongue as far as possible, and give one of your wrists (preferably one without perfume) a good lick. Wait five seconds, and take a sniff. Almost everyone's tongue has an odor.

Interestingly, the odor of the front end of the tongue isn't the core of the problem, so you shouldn't rely on this little experiment as a telltale sign that you have bad breath (asking someone close to you is always better!). The actual source for bad breath isn't at the front end of the tongue, but way further back, towards your throat. In many people with bad breath, a careful scraping of the back of the tongue with a spoon reveals a yellowish mucous substance. The smell of this material on the spoon itself is often very reminiscent of the odor emanating from the whole mouth of the subject.

Although no one is sure, it appears that the origin of this material is post-nasal drip (PND). Many people (perhaps a quarter of the urban population) suffer from post-nasal drip. Many of us don't even know we have it. In most cases, it's not associated with any disease, but is rather more like an allergy. Most of the mucus secretion rolls down the throat, but some of it may get stuck on the tongue or the tonsils.
While the PND may not have a smell when it gets there, after hanging around for a few days, the millions of bacteria on the tongue break down the proteins in it, yielding foul smelling molecules. Perhaps before the industrial era and in more primitive societies, the back of the tongue was cleansed by eating more fibrous food than we eat today. Whether or not this is true, the back of the tongue is a major source of bad breath, and the odor which it gives off has a typical smell of its own.

Interestingly, some people with this problem don't have much bad breath when they just blow air from their mouth. It's when they begin to talk that the odor makes itself evident. Apparently, during speech, the passage of air over the active tongue tends to intensify the odor.

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