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National Fresh Breath Day and the history of halitosis

Aug. 6 is National Fresh Breath Day. Dentists all over would rejoice if this holiday was celebrated every day and not just once a year. Breath smells are something we are all too familiar with, and its remedies are routine parts of our oral hygiene instructions to patients. Unlike the rest of society, we are in a unique position to tell someone their breath smells bad without it being instantly embarrassing. After all, it is our job. Therefore, celebrating this holiday as a dental student is a no-brainer. I’m not sure who came up with the idea for National Fresh Breath Day, but it provides a good reason to share the history of bad breath and, in particular, the word “halitosis.”

Halitosis is a sum of the Latin “halitus,” for breath, and the Greek suffix “-osis,” for disease. Coined in 1874 by Dr. Joseph William Howe in his book “The Breath, and the Diseases Which Give It a Fetid Odor,” the word existed as an obscure medical term confined to the pages of medical dictionaries and known by only the small subset of the population who read them.

In 1879, Listerine was invented by Dr. Joseph Lawrence and Jordan Wheat Lambert as an antiseptic that could be used as a surgical disinfectant, floor cleaner, deodorant, etc., according to the National Museum of American History. It wasn’t until around the 1920s that it began to take on the more familiar form of a mouthwash.

This was when Gerard Lambert, son of one of the inventors of Listerine, decided to use the medical connotation of the word halitosis to his advantage and created one of the most influential advertising campaigns of the century. Lambert and the advertising agency he founded aggressively marketed print campaigns about the detriments of having bad breath. Some ads went as far as quoting statistics from hairdressers that one-third of women visiting salons had “halitoxic” breath. Some ads portrayed young singles looking for love, only to be held back from finding a partner by their terrible, toxic breath.

The tame phrase “bad breath” became the medical diagnosis “halitosis” in the public lexicon. Consumers who saw these ads pushed Listerine sales astronomically high in the 1920s. Listerine had advertised the need for a product rather than the product itself and generated a demand where none had previously existed. Halitosis became a household word. 

Bad breath continues to carry the same social implications as it did a century ago, but, thankfully, doctors can recommend solutions to the problem. Maybe the next time you tell a patient, a friend or a total stranger that their breath smells bad, you can mask any potential awkwardness with the distracting historical tidbit on the origin of the word halitosis.

Whether you celebrate by raising a toast with a tiny cup of mouthwash or by popping a mint, happy National Fresh Breath Day!

~Harish Balasubramani, Pittsburgh ’22, ASDA Electronic Editor

Harish Balasubramani

Harishwer Balasubramani is a fourth-year dental student at the University of Pittsburgh. He currently serves ASDA as an electronic editor and was previously Secretary of Pittsburgh ASDA and content coordinator for District 3 ASDA.

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