Body odour is the term given to any smell associated with a person's body.
What is going on in the body?
People usually associate body odour with sweat, but sweat by itself does not give off an odour. Sweat is nothing more than water and salts expelled by the sweat glands to regulate body temperature. Bacteria on a person's skin mix with the sweat in order to produce body odour. Body odour can sometimes indicate a more serious medical condition.
What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
When someone complains of body odour, the doctor will need more information. He or she may ask:
Other questions may also be asked.
- when the body odour started
- for a description of the body odour
- where the body odour seems to be coming from, such as all over, the breath, the armpits, the urine, or the genitals
- whether the odour is constant or only occurs sometimes
- whether anything makes the odour better or worse
- whether or not there is any family history of body odour
- what other medical conditions a person has, if any
- what medications, herbs, or drugs a person takes, if any
- any other symptoms a person has, if any
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Causes of body odour include:
Other causes are also possible. Sometimes no cause can be found.
- excessive sweating
- poor hygiene
- liver or kidney failure
- uncontrolled diabetes mellitus, or diabetes, a condition that causes increased blood sugar levels
- tooth or oral conditions, such as cavities, periodontal disease, which is disease around a tooth, or gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums. These are common causes of bad breath.
- eating certain foods, such as garlic or raw onions, which can cause bad breath
- infections, such as a lung abscess or pocket of pus, skin infections, vaginal yeast infections, sexually transmitted diseases, or urinary tract infections. These can cause odour in the area of the infection. For instance, a lung abscess can cause bad breath.
- inborn errors of metabolism, such as a group of conditions known as aminoaciduria. These tend to be noticed in childhood.
- tumours or cancer, which may cause an odour in the area of the tumour. For instance, tumours of the mouth or stomach may cause bad breath. Cancer of the cervix or uterus may cause a discharge from the vagina that has a certain odour to it.
- drugs, toxins, or herbs, such as alcohol, arsenic poisoning, cyanide poisoning, or cigarette smoking
- psychological conditions, which may cause a person to think they have a foul body odour when none exists
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Prevention is related to the cause. For instance, avoiding drugs or toxins can prevent cases from this cause. Taking medications as prescribed and monitoring blood sugar levels at home can prevent many cases due to uncontrolled diabetes. Regular teeth brushing with approved toothpaste and regular dentist visits can prevent many cases due to tooth diseases.
How is the condition diagnosed?
The doctor's role is to help make sure there is not a serious medical condition causing the body odour. Diagnosis starts with a history and physical examination. This may be all that is needed in some cases. In other cases, further testing may be needed.
The tests ordered depend on the suspected cause. The doctor may order: Other tests may be needed in some cases.
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Body odour may sometimes cause problems in the affected person's relationships. A person may feel shame, embarrassment, anger, frustration, or depression as a result of his or her body odour. Other long-term effects are related to the cause of the body odour. For instance, some of the aminoaciduria conditions can cause mental retardation, seizures, or even death. Cases due to an infection usually go away after treatment and often cause no long-term effects.
What are the risks to others?
Body odour is not contagious. If the body odour is due to an infection, the infection may be contagious, such as a sexually transmitted disease. Inherited conditions may be passed on to children through the genes.
What are the treatments for the condition?
A person who is prone to getting an unpleasant body odour should wash regularly with soap. The individual might also consider using a deodorant with an antiperspirant, to help prevent sweating. A well-balanced diet following the Australian Guide To Healthy Eating is also advised and may help in some cases.
Treatment is directed at the cause when one can be found. For instance, a person with an infection may need antibiotics. Someone with cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. A person who eats certain foods or takes certain toxins or drugs needs to stop eating or using these substances. Those with psychological conditions may need to see a therapist regularly or take medications.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects are related to the treatment. Some people may have skin irritation or an allergy to certain deodorants. Antibiotics can cause allergic reactions and stomach upset. Surgery carries a risk of bleeding or infections.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
A person who is prone to develop body odour can often prevent it with the use of deodorants that contain an antiperspirant. Those with diabetes or kidney or liver failure need lifelong monitoring and treatment for their conditions. Those with an infection often need no further monitoring or treatment once the infection goes away.
How is the condition monitored?
Changes or response to treatment can be reported to the doctor. Other monitoring is related to the cause. For instance, a person with diabetes needs to check blood sugar levels frequently.
Author: John Riddle
Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request