NOT MUCH WAS understood in Medieval England about cavities or gum disease, but they did care very muchabout keeping their breath fresh. They didn’t know about germs, and they believed that bad smells were infectious on their own, including bad breath.
How did smell-based dental care work? Mostly by chewing spices. You can even find evidence of this practice in the Canterbury Tales. Chaucer’s characters keep their breath fresh by chewing cardamom and licorice. Women were sometimes recommended a mixture of aniseed, cumin, and fennel.
So which dental problems went unaddressed while all the focus was on breath? They didn’t have to worry about cavities too much because sugar wouldn’t enter their diets until the 1400s, but grinding flour between millstones tended to leave tiny bits of stone in their bread. You can imagine how much that could damage their teeth over time, and it was a big reason most adults would lose four to six teeth in their lifetimes.
What if you got a toothache? If you were rich, you could treat it with myrrh and opium. If not, you might be instructed to burn a mutton fat and sea holly seed candle very close to your tooth. This was supposed to make the “worms” inside the tooth fall out into a basin of water. (We’re very glad to live in the 21st century, where we know worms don’t cause toothaches.)
Today, we have the benefit of centuries more knowledge than people had in the middle ages. We know that bad breath isn’t the cause of dental problems but a symptom of them. The simplest and most common cause is leftover food particles stuck between our teeth after a meal. The bacteria in our mouths break down these particles, and the end result doesn’t smell good. We can combat this with a good daily hygiene routine.
Chronic cases of bad breath (also called halitosis) might not be solved by good daily brushing and flossing habits. Halitosis may be caused by:
Even if strict oral hygiene isn’t enough to keep the bad breath completely at bay, it will help to manage it, and treating the underlying cause may be able to eliminate it. If you are a habitual mouth-breather, try breathing through your nose more. Quitting smoking will eliminate a major cause of bad breath. If dry mouth is the problem, chew sugar-free gum and mints to stimulate saliva production, sip water, and use a humidifier to help keep up the moisture.