Dear Prudence

Help! It’s Time to Talk to Our Friend About His Bad Breath.

Dear Prudence answers more of your questions—only for Slate Plus members.

Collage of a woman holding her nose and a man with an open mouth.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by XiXinXing/iStock/Getty Images Plus and structuresxx/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members.

Q. Confronting a friend about their health: I am part of a very close group of friends. One member of the group, I’ll call him “A,” has very obvious periodontal issues. If you are with him in a car, you can smell his breath after about a minute, and if he talks for too long, you can see his gums start to bleed. He tries really hard to cover up these problems and has never acknowledged them to anyone in our friend group. We know he hasn’t been to a dentist in years and isn’t doing anything to treat the issue.

I’ve been in several conversations now where other members of the group have brought up our friend’s teeth, but everyone has said the same thing: They feel awkward bringing it up with him and know he’ll probably react badly. This friend has a deep fear of doctors and also takes criticism poorly. So far, everyone has expressed that they think my boyfriend should be the one to talk to A, since he’s known him the longest and is his closest friend. I kind of agree with this, but my boyfriend doesn’t feel comfortable confronting A either, and I don’t like that everyone has already decided it should fall to him. My boyfriend is extremely agreeable and will probably fall on this sword if people keep telling him he should. I guess I have two questions: how best to bring this up without making A feel attacked, and how to make sure my boyfriend doesn’t get pushed into an uncomfortable situation just because he’s easy to push.

A: If your boyfriend is resistant but a bit of a pushover, I think you should give him freedom to sit this one out. I wonder if there’s a way you and another friend could bring this up as something you’re willing and eager to help A with, rather than something you want him to handle on his own. Having two people speak to A will make you both feel a little less scared to bring it up, but it’s not so many people that it constitutes an intervention or causes additional, unnecessary embarrassment. I’d also encourage you to treat it less like a “confrontation” and more like an offer to reduce whatever barriers to accessing help he may be facing. You can name the obvious—that you’ve noticed his bloody mouth, that dental health can have a serious impact on cardiovascular health and isn’t just a cosmetic issue, that you love him and want to do anything you can to support him—and also offer to help find a dentist office that will take his insurance and go with him to his first appointment. A number of dental offices these days are aware that many clients are terrified of the dentist, and offer sedation/medication for even routine cleanings in order to reduce panic attacks in the chair. It’s still going to feel uncomfortable at first, but as long as you can stress that you’re here for your friend, that you’re willing to help make the task more manageable, and that he’s not alone, I think the odds he’ll be able to take you up on your offer will significantly improve.