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Many people are finding a surprise behind their face masks

Face masks are revealing an old problem.

KENT COUNTY, Michigan — For many, it has become one of the more unpleasant aspects of the coronavirus pandemic. Instead of just trapping germs inside face masks, they're discovering they are also trapping bad breath. 

Patients across the country are showing up at their dentists' offices complaining of the new phenomenon, descriptively coined "mask breath."

"I haven't personally encountered it. I've had nobody just bring it up, but it doesn't surprise me," says Dr. Brian Nylaan DDS, a West Michigan dentist. "There's kind of a two-fold result of wearing masks consistently. Number one is mask breath. You know, you exhale a small amount of organic sulfur compounds and they can build up because the mask is built to be semi-permeable and not fully permeable."

Nylaan has a practice on the northeast side of Grand Rapids. He, like thousands of other dentists in Michigan, were forced to close between mid-March and June. Many of them are working to return patient volume to where it was before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Nylaan says he's seen a recent influx of people clamoring to get their teeth cleaned.

"We had a team meeting, three days before we could officially opened on June 1st and my phone was ringing off the hook with people asking for appointments," he says. "There are a couple you know a couple individuals that, you know, want to take six months off just so this thing boils over or stops. And, you know, we're not going to push anybody in because we want to make sure everybody's comfortable. But, my opinion is dental offices are about the safest place you can be in. We've learned over the years how to handle infection control."

Nylaan can't say for sure if a declining number of dental visits factor into "mask breath." But he can say it is likely a sign of a mouth that is not clean enough. 

"Those sulfur compounds reside in the plaque in your mouth and the papillae in your tongue. They can also come up from you know your throat and your stomach. And, if they don't have anywhere to go, they're going to build up in there and you're going to experience it. And, sometimes it's not a pleasant experience."

Those sulfur compounds come from bacteria that live in the mouth in order to break down food. Nylaan says the smell behind the mask is probably unmasking a problem that has been there all along.

"Yeah, and maybe they might be coming to a realization because normally their breath would spray out and they wouldn't know it unless somebody made mention to them, but now it is confined to their close proximity," he said.

Fortunately, the solution is, more than likely a simple one.

"I really feel that doing the cleanings is going to be the most important thing. I mean if people want to help themselves out at home, obviously brush. You know, brush 3 times a day," he says. "Take care of oral hygiene. You know from a dental perspective, even things like tongue scrapers, you can get at any store, can help. So, it can be addressed without too much difficulty."

That said, Nylaan advised people not to ignore the problem.

"My biggest concern is sometimes chronic halitosis can be a very small but very prominent symptom of deeper issues, again, either in your throat or in your stomach or things like that. You know, chronic halitosis is not, in essence, just one of those things that is a social nuisance. Sometimes it can reveal a serious health problem."

"My biggest concern about sometimes chronic halitosis can be a very small but very prominent symptom of deeper issues again, either in your throat or in your stomach."

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