Nearly everyone has been in the situation, and it can be excruciating. Telling someone that they have bad breath is not news that most people prefer to deliver, just as it's a rare day that someone wants to hear it. Nevertheless, being open and honest about a friend's halitosis is just as important as treating it, since one naturally precedes the other.
An advice column in the Ottawa Citizen recently addressed this very topic. A women, writing in under the pen name "Breathing Not Easy," complained that her partner occasionally suffers from horrific oral odor, sometimes to the point that it makes intimacy difficult.
The reader adds that since her boyfriend does not always have bad breath, she has not been able to gather the courage to tell him. This indecision is a common problem, since many people do not suffer from halitosis every day - and why bring it up when it's not a chronic problem?
The reason why it's important to inform someone of their oral odor, if obliquely, is that having it twice a week - like the reader's companion - qualifies as chronic. Bad breath that recurs every few days is caused by oral bacteria, and colonies of these critters can regrow even after being sizzled away with alcohol-based mouthwash.
The problem with such products is that they can dry out the mouth, leaving a fertile breeding ground for anaerobic microbes, which need a dry, low-saliva environment to multiply. Over time, this effect can leave even careful people with breath so bad that their partners have to write away to a newspaper to figure out how to break it to them.
In fairness, the Citizen gives reasonable advice. It says that the woman might consider using subtle hints, like offering gum, to convey that her boyfriend's breath is not so hot. This recommendation is common, as is the suggestion to be a good friend and ignore the odor, which another news source, the Independent, recently told a reader to try.
While these strategies are kind and considerate, it helps to think of the issue as if it were you with bad breath - which is likely enough anyway. Would you want to be told that you have halitosis, provided your friend breaks it to you privately and tastefully? Most would.
Therefore, it behooves good friends to broach the subject, however circuitously, and to recommend using specialty breath freshening products, which neutralize bad breath rather than masking it in the way gum does.
While it is a hard boundary to move beyond, the urge to keep a friend unaware of their breath usually violates the golden rule, so consider tactfully helping them stay fresh.