Of smells, odours and halitosis | Sunday Observer

Of smells, odours and halitosis

Clark Gable
Clark Gable

Sensations of smell are difficult to describe and classify, but useful categorizations have been made by noting the chemical elements of odorous substances. Research has pointed to the existence of seven primary odours corresponding to the seven types of smell receptors in the olfactory cell hairs: camphor-like, musky, floral, peppermint-like, ethereal (dry-cleaning fluid), pungent (garlic) and putrid.

All of us sweat during the day. In hot climate we sweat more than in cold climate. Fresh sweat has no bad odour. However, if you do not wash your body or bathe regularly, accumulated sweat can give out a foul smell.

In order to keep body odour to a manageable degree, the perfume industry has done a lot by producing perfumes in various forms. Another problem some of us have is bad breath. Offensive breath, bad breath or what doctors call halitosis is a serious medical condition. The audience gasped when Scarlett O’Hara’s lips were only a few inches away from those of Clark Gable. The reason was that the great Hollywood actor Gable had offensive breath bad enough to deflect cannon fire!

Clark Gable’s problem was caused by dentures, cigarettes and alcohol. However, there may be other reasons for a man or woman’s ‘dragon mouth.’ Medical experts have been debating whether it could be treated. While scientific experiments are being carried out, those who are suffering from offensive breath have tried out various methods to get rid of it.

Variety of jobs

Clark Gable (1901-1960) was an American film actor, born in Cadiz, Ohio. Before achieving fame, Gable performed a wide variety of jobs, from drilling oil wells to playing minor roles in silent films. He made a successful Broadway appearance in “Machinal” (1928). The first film in which he was featured was “The Painted Desert” (1931). During the 1930s Gabel was the leading actor in American films. He played opposite the best known female stars of the day and was frequently cited as the personality whose films made the most money at the box office. For his role in the film, “It Happened One Night” (1934) Gabel won the prestigious Academy Award. In “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935) and “Gone with the Wind” (1939) he played roles that were the prototype of the virile, adventurous American male. Gabel served as a combat gunner in World War II. After the war he returned to the screen in such films as “Command Decision” (1949), “Across the Wide Missouri” (1951) and “Mogambo” (1953). He died a few days after completing his last film “The Misfits”.

According to medical opinion, bad breath is caused by the slowing down of the flow of saliva in the mouth. The bacteria in our mouths feed on food particles and emit fetid gases.

The foulest gases are said to be hydrogen sulfide and methyl mercaptan. The former smells like rotten eggs and the latter has the barnyard odour. Oxygen-rich saliva keeps the mouth in check preventing their multiplication. However, when we go to bed bacteria get reactivated. This leads to bad breath in the morning.

The activity that dries the mouth can cause bad breath. Alcoholic drinks, hunger, too much talking, breathing problems can also trigger offensive breath. Elderly people are likely to have more bad breath problems because saliva flow slows down with age. Babies are relatively free from bad breath because their mouths are always full of saliva and they contain less bacteria.

Medical advice

Regular cleaning of the mouth can keep bad breath under control. However, some people cannot get rid of bad breath easily. They have to follow Anne Bosy’s advice and drink water with lemon.

Bosy is the co-founder of the Fresh Breath Clinic in Toronto, Canada. Regular brushing of teeth is also recommended for bad breath. In addition, they should brush their tongues, palates and cheeks to get rid of bacteria.

Patients often ask doctors whether mouthwash would help to get rid of bacteria. However, mouthwash has not been found to be an effective remedy for bad breath. Dr. Jon L. Richter says, most bacteria are well protected from mouthwash hiding under thick layers of plaque and mucus. If the mouthwash contains alcohol, it can dry out the mouth fast.

Garlic and onions can aggravate the problem however much they are nutritious. Most people cannot tolerate the garlic or onion smell. Bad breath can be controlled by taking a lot of liquid. If bad breath is intolerable, they should not consume garlic and onion. In some cases people get bad breath when they eat eggs or meat. Dieting can also make people prone to halitosis. This is because they burn stored fat giving out a medicinal smell. According to Dr. Richter, some people have even pulled out all their teeth to get rid of halitosis but to no avail.


According to medical opinion, halitosis can be hereditary. Anne Bosy says people with bad breath have no gum diseases. That means bacteria remain active under plaque and mucus. In such cases brushing and mouthwash have no effect.

Bad breath can be a social handicap leading to emotional and psychological problems. Sometimes, people have imaginary halitosis and worry. Even medical experts are unable to help such people. The biggest problem is that it is hard to tell how your own breath smells. This is because, once the nose has taken in an odour for a few minutes, it stops smelling it. This is true because you do not get the bad smell of fish if you are compelled to live close to a fish market. The only way to test your breath is to ask someone to gauge it. If they confirm that you have bad breath, then you need medical help.

When it comes to smells and odours, we cannot forget Christopher Morley’s poem:

Why is it that the poets tell
So little of the sense of smell?
These are the odours I love well.
The smell of coffee, freshly
Or rich plum pudding,
Or onions fried and deeply

The fragrance of a fumy pipe;
The smell of apples, newly ripe;
And printers’ ink on leaden type.
Woods by moonlight in September
Breathe most sweet; and I
Many a smoky camp-fire ember.
Camphor, turpentine, and tea,
The balsam of a Christmas tree,
These are the whiffs of gramarye-
A ship smells best of all to me!


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