Unusual Breath Odors & What They Mean

Unusual Breath Odors and What They Mean

Unusual breath odors are common in kids. Typically there isn’t anything to worry about, but there are some breath odors that indicate an underlying problem.

In children smelly breath that persists throughout the day is most often the result of mouth-breathing, which dries out the mouth and allows the bacteria to grow. Children who consistently breathe through their mouths might have colds, sinus infections, allergies, or enlarged tonsils or adenoids blocking the nasal passages, so a visit to the pediatrician is in order. Thumbsucking or sucking on a blanket can also dry out the mouth.

Here is a list of some very uncommon, but telltale, odors (mostly from Mace, Goodman, Centerwall, et al: The child with an unusual odor. Clinical Pediatrics 15:57-62, 1976).

Unusual Breath Odors:

  • Acetone (fruity smell) – diabetes or acetone, alcohol, phenol, or salicylate ingestion
  • Ammonia – some types of urinary tract infections, or kidney failure
  • Asparagus – eating asparagus (very unusual in children;>))
  • Bitter almonds – cyanide poisoning
  • Cat’s urine – odor of cats syndrome (beta-methyl-crotonyl-CoA-carboxylase deficiency)
  • Celery – Oasthouse urine disease
  • Dead fish – stale fish syndrome (trimethylamine oxidase deficiency)
  • Fresh-baked bread – typhoid fever
  • Foul – tonsillitis, sinusitis, gingivitis, lung abscess, dental cavities, tonsil stones, or gastroesophageal reflux  (some of these are actually quite common)
  • Garlic – arsenic, phosphorus, organic phosphate insecticides, or thallium poisoning
  • Horse-like (also described as mouse-like or musty) – phenylketonuria
  • Rancid butter – odor of rancid butter syndrome (hypermethionemia and hypertyrosinemia)
  • Raw liver – liver failure
  • Sweaty socks – odor of sweaty feet syndrome (Isovalryl CoA dehydrogenase deficiency)
  • Sweaty socks – odor of sweaty feet syndrome II (Green acyldehydrogenase deficiency)
  • Violets – turpentine poisoning

Three-year-olds often stuff items in their noses, and then forget about them. When my son Kevin was three, he put five peas up his nose before anyone found out! Watch for the combination of smelly breath and a smelly, yellow nasal discharge — especially from one nostril. You and I might not think of stuffing peas up our noses, but three-year-olds think outside the box!

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is the founder of DrGreene.com (cited by the AMA as “the pioneer physician Web site”), a practicing pediatrician, father of four, & author of Raising Baby Green & Feeding Baby Green. He appears frequently in the media including such venues as the The New York Times, the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, & the Dr. Oz Show.

  1. Miranda

    My 9 month-old daughter’s spit smells almost vinegary. Her hands and cheeks smells like the spit because she chews on them. Her pacifier, toys, etc. smell like her spit. The dried spit on her face is flaky and white. What is going on? I brush her gums twice a day with baby tooth paste and rubber finger.

    How can I fix this?

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  2. melissa martin

    What if my 6 year old’s breath always smells like rotted milk?

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  3. Daniel

    Hello, please my breath smells and I cannot distinguish what kind of smell, but I know it does smells. I have taken a lot of antibiotics and lots more, but it always comes back. I also do have a dry mouth sometimes, but not often. What does surprise me is that I do have spit in my mouth, but I think it doesn’t neutralizes the odor. I have lost my confidence a long time ago. Just still hoping that there is a cure out there. Well I’m 20.

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    • What have you tried so far? I’m sure you brush regularly. Do you floss? What mouth washes have you tried? Have you tried “oil pulling”?

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  4. Amy

    My son is 10 and has Autism and adhd….for years his breath always smells like corn. I guess there can be much worse things, but is this normal?

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  5. Stan

    When I eat a lot of chocolate my breath smells like foul green beans. I’m a 44yr old male.

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  6. Ed McQuillan

    People tell me my breath smells like alcohol, and I don’t drink. It’s embarrassing. Any explanation what would cause that? Thank you. Ed

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  7. shepherd makopa ncube

    I am a 26 year old male with a bad breathe problem. My bad breath is really takking away my confidence, I use normal toothpaste and mouth washes but the problem persist no matter the mint flavour of toothpaste still in my mouth. My girlfriend always say brush again but still it doesn’t stop. Can there be any speacial medication, or stages I have to follow to terminate this embarrassing sickness.

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  8. Henry

    I am a 25 year old male, I brush twice a day and use smart mouth rinse once or twice a day. My mom noticed I have bad breath, but it is different — it smells like something burnt, smells like gun-powder. Sometimes my urine has strong smell. My mouth tastes funny sometimes, it tastes bitter. What is wrong with me Dr.?

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  9. Joann

    My grandson who is going to be 6 in April just about always has garlic breath. He doesn’t eat garlic, should we be concerned?

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  10. Cheryl

    We have a 18 month old that has breath that smells like fish. What causes this? Should we be concerned?

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  11. yolanda

    Why does my breath smell like dry blood? I am a 52 yr old female.

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  12. jillian

    My 6 year old daughter has seasonal allergies and no health issues. For the last two years we’ve noticed more often than not that her breath smells sweet like popcorn, yogurt or cotton candy. No food or drink…nor will toothbrushing help. Pediatrician has run blood test and urine test to rule out diabetes…no clue…help!

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  13. dee

    chemical breath like smell 6months
    former smoker.. could be tobacco releasing into cells???

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    • Jennifer

      I had a hard time pin pointing how to describe the smell on my husbands breath. The best I could do was “chemical”; I finally was able to compare it to coca cola. It turned out to be “silent reflux” and was completely gone by taking Nexium daily. If he misses a pill, the smell returns.

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  14. harleyzmomma2004@yahoo.com

    BTW my daughter is 10

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  15. harleyzmomma2004@yahoo.com

    My daughter says everything taste like peanut butter and her breath smells like it. She has stomach pain

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  16. Raven Long

    My 11 yr old breath has a very very strong vinegar smell to it. He can brush his teeth and it goes away for a few minutes, but it comes right back! Help what is this?

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  17. Maria

    I forgot to say i am a 73 yr old female.
    Maria

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  18. Maria

    i awoke this morning with my mouth and nose very close to a pillow and got a good smell of my breath, and it smelled to me like dirty feet! I sleep alone and i noticed that my room smelled the same way! What would cause this? Very concerned!
    Maria

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  19. veronica

    My grandaughters breath smells kinda like garlic really fowl she is only 7 her room smells like her breath in the morning. I am confused.. can you help?

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  20. Daisy Coppedge

    Pizza…. My Breath Tastes And Smells Like Pizza….. I didn’t eat Pizza

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  21. Jessica

    My daughter’s breath smells like rubber. Any suggestions?

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