Dr Ng Min Ching
If you lead an active lifestyle, it's only natural to perspire. And you don't have to let it get in the way of your social life. We explain how to keep body odour at bay.
Everyone has a distinctive smell, thanks to the unique combination of sweat, bacterial activity on sweat and pheromones on your body. If it develops into body odour, it can also be a symptom of an underlying organic disease. This feature discusses what the causes of BO are and how you can cut down your chances of getting it.
Why a person may have BO
1. Sweat. The average adult body has more than three million sweat glands that are capable of secreting 12 litres of sweat a day.
Essentially, there are two types of sweat glands you should be aware of: eccrine and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands are found all over the body. Apocrine glands, on the other hand, are found in the armpits and genital areas. The sweat they produce contains fatty and proteinaceous substances. These react with skin bacteria and increase the intensity of the body odour. Unshaven armpits worsen the problem as the hair provides more surface area for the reagents and bacteria to react on.
Conditions that cause sweating can aggravate the problem of body odour. These may arise when a person is anxious, or if he suffers from medical conditions that aggravate sweating, such as primary hyperhidrosis (excessive perspiration) and hyperthyroidism (overactivity of the thyroid gland).
2. Infection. The result is that there is more bacteria gets to get mixed up with the sweat, leading to a strong body odour. Some common examples are:
- Tinea pedis (Athlete's Foot)
- Candidiasis, or yeast infection in the privates. If extensive, a "beery" smell can arise.
- A sexually transmitted infection, such as trichomoniasis can produce a fishy odour in the privates.
- Bad breath, also known as halitosis, can be caused by dental caries, gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), oral sores.
- Bad breath can also be due to sinusitis, bronchiectasis, and lung abscesses.
3. Metabolic and endocrine conditions. Examples include the urinary odour of the breath in patients with kidney failure, a musty smell in liver failure, and a sweet fruity odour in diabetic ketoacidosis (uncontrolled diabetes).
4. Medication. If you are using coal tar in the treatment of psoriasis, it can result in a pungent smell.
5. Food. Odours of aromatic food like garlic, onions and spicy curry can be emitted through the breath and sweat.
All of the above can be aggravated by:
- Obesity. An obese person is more prone to sweating and has more skin folds that rub against each other when there is movement. The resulting friction causes the skin to become macerated, where bacteria thrives in. Commonly affected parts are the regions just below the breasts, the armpits and between the thighs.
- Stress and anxiety, which naturally causes a person to perspire more.
Keeping BO under control
With a good standard of personal hygiene, offensive body odour will be easily kept at bay. Some things to keep in mind are:
Medical treatment. Where the malodour stems from a medical condition, treatment will be aimed at eradicating the root of the problem. For instance, antibiotics or antifungals are used to treat infections, abscesses are drained, diabetes is controlled, and laser surgery is used to destroy the nerve centres responsible for sweating in severe primary hyperhidrosis.
Personal hygiene. Besides bathing, and changing clothes and underwear frequently, you should brush and floss your teeth daily, and go for regular six-monthly dental check-ups. If you are worried that land-based exercise can make you sweat more, try swimming instead. It helps to shave the armpit area as well.
Pay particular attention to your feet. Change your socks, and switch between different pairs of shoes each day you go to work, so that you won't encourage bacterial growth by wearing the same damp pair of shoes every day. Try to keep the feet dry, to spray shoes with antibacterial and antifungal deodorant, and to air shoes regularly.
In a tropical climate like Singapore's, it helps to keep your body cool so you will not sweat so much. Wear loose fitting clothing made of natural fibre such as cotton; alternatively, use a fan or stay in an air-conditioned room.
If you are using fragrant bath oil, soap, talcum powder deodorant or perfume, you should be aware that you are only masking the problem. Get to the root of it. Finally, if you know that eating some foods will trigger an odour problem, give those food a miss.
This article is also reprinted in the April issue of NTUC Lifestyle magazine.
Date reviewed: 22 February 2005