While bad breath has existed as long as there have been mouths to produce it and noses to detect it, the idea that it comes from specific causes and should be taken seriously is fairly recent. The word "halitosis" was coined in 1874, and dental researchers and oral health experts have been refining its causes ever since.
Since ancient times, it has been understood that bad breath is more than a cosmetic issue. Hippocrates of Cos, who lived around 400 BC and is often called the Father of Western Medicine, knew that gum disease could cause oral odor - even though, at the time, most civilizations believed the condition was caused by an imbalance of bodily fluids, or "humors."
It wasn't until the 1800s that bad breath got a scientific name beyond "malodour" or "fetor ex ore," Latin for "odor from the mouth." The man who is generally credited with creating the word "halitosis," Joseph William Howe, was a multi-talented and sometimes eccentric physician.
His medical interests were varied and diverse, with the result that he authored a number of oddly titled books like "Winter Homes for Invalids" and "Excessive Venery, Masturbation and Continence." While it is clear that he followed some of the odder hygienic trends of the nineteenth century, he also pioneered the study of a widespread problem - halitosis.
In 1874, Howe published a book titled "The Breath, and the Diseases Which Give It a Fetid Odor." It contained the first use of the now commonly accepted scientific word for oral odor. "The term 'halitosis' signifies diseased breath," he wrote. "It is derived from the Latin 'halitus' (breath), and the Greek 'nosos' (disease)."
Howe's studies of bad breath anticipated research that lay almost a century ahead. He noted that sulfuric compounds lend halitosis its smell, and that in particular "sulphuretted hydrogen," or hydrogen sulfide, "causes at once an offensive breath." Today, healthcare professionals agree that volatile sulfur compounds must be eliminated in order to relieve oral odor.
The man also noted that virtually no one is willing to tell you when you have even the worst halitosis. "This false kindness," he said, "is universal."
Though many of the causes of bad breath Howe noted - like "clergyman's sore throat" and "abuse of mercury" - are now extremely uncommon if not extinct, his recommendations for curing halitosis still largely hold up to scrutiny. He suggested cleansing the mouth, avoiding pungent foods and keeping the teeth and gums healthy in order to fight bad breath. Rinsing the mouth with a specialty breath freshener may also do the trick.