Ancient physicians had no idea where halitosis came from, often considered it a feminine issue
SUMMARY: Today, breath experts know that halitosis starts in the mouth. But centuries ago, physicians were totally baffled.
Posted: August 2, 2012
If you suffer from bad breath - and everyone does now and then - you can use specialty breath fresheners to eliminate it. If the problem becomes chronic, breath clinicians can give you an examination, using cutting-edge technology to determine what exactly is causing your halitosis.
That's the beauty of the 21st century. But what if you'd lived in the 1st century? How would things have been different?
1. Most people knew that food makes breath stink.
It's clear that, even thousands of years ago, most people knew that smelly foods could cause oral odor. A study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association (JADA) notes that, according to ancient documents, the Muslim prophet Muhammad may have had a congregant kicked out of his mosque for reeking of garlic.
However, that appears to be about as far as most people could reason.
2. Beyond that, physicians and scholars were baffled by bad breath.
Many early physicians suspected that bad breath came from soured bodily humors or mysterious internal disorders. They also thought that when women had halitosis, it was a feminine issue.
According to Lesley Dean-Jones, a professor of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, ancient Greeks like Hippocrates (a physician) and Aristotle (a philosopher) thought that female bad breath could be a uterine problem. At that time, many physicians believed that the womb was a single, long tube that started at the mouth and extended all the way down.
They even invented some misguided and disgusting fertility tests, that involved inserting pessaries (made from things like crushed-up dung beetles) and waiting to see if a woman developed halitosis. If she didn't, she was "blocked," preventing conception.
Needless to say, physicians were wrong about that.
3. Smelly mouths were called ozostomoi in ancient Greek.
That's literally what the word means: "smelly mouth." It appears in an ancient joke book called the Philogelos, which includes several wisecracks about halitosis and unwashed rears.
4. Treatments were pretty primitive.
The JADA study mentions a number of early breath fresheners. While some might have worked momentarily, most look like they probably just contributed to tooth decay and more bad breath.
In biblical times, people with oral odor chewed mastic, a fragrant tree resin that turns into a gum-like plug in the mouth. Others ground cloves between their teeth or nibbled on parsley after meals. Folks in China cleaned their teeth with crushed eggshells, the JADA report states, while those in Thailand used guava peels.
And Hippocrates himself, the so-called Father of Western Medicine? He recommended gargling a mouthwash made of red wine, aniseed and dill.
5. A few people suspected that oral problems cause halitosis.
Some especially deep thinkers got the feeling that, even when no smelly foods had been eaten, the mouth was still the origin of bad breath. Consider this quote from Pliny the Elder, a Roman statesman who, in his free time, wrote the world's first encyclopedia:
A man's breath becomes infected by the bad quality of food, the bad state of teeth and still more by old age. Experience teaches that against the bad odor of the breath it is useful to wash the mouth with pure wine before sleeping, and that to avoid the aching of the teeth it is a good thing to rinse the mouth in the morning with several mouthfuls of fresh water.
Pliny gets eerily close to current knowledge of bad breath. He mentions tooth decay, tooth loss, mouthwash, morning breath and the need for wetting the tongue. All he misses is that alcohol-free mouthwash beats rinsing with wine.