ASK THE DOC: How much body odor is normal, & when is it a sign of something else?

QUESTION: How much body odor is normal, and when is it a sign of something else?

ANSWER: Some body odor is normal. Body odor is caused by sweat mixing with bacteria on the skin.  People who have more hair tend to have higher amounts of bacteria around their hair and, therefore, can be more likely to have body odor.  People with mental illness or a lack of resources to wash may have more body odor. If your clothes and body are clean, this odor should be barely or not at all detectable to someone sitting next to. Many medical conditions may change someone’s “smell”. Let’s not forget how food affects our smell as well. We all know when a coworker had ramps for dinner!

Regarding medical conditions, the smell of your sweat can change when something inside your body is out of balance.  For example, people with diabetes that have very high blood sugars will produce something called ketones. This gives the breath a sour/fruity odor. Glucose (sugar) also increases in the sweat of diabetics.  Bacteria, like us, love to eat sugar. As a result, there is more sugar in the sweat, and more bacteria on the skin, and this mix can drastically increase body odor.  This sugar on the skin increases the likelihood of all kinds of infections on the skin, which can be very malodorous.

Other medical conditions that may cause a change in how someone smells include gout, overactive thyroid, liver disease, kidney disease, infections, and phenylketonuria.  Conditions that cause hormonal changes may affect the body’s smell, like menopause or during ovulation. Foods like onions, garlic, ramps, cabbage, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, and red meat all increase sulfur in the sweat.  MSG, caffeine, spices, and spicy food, alcohol are all contributors as well. There are excellent resources on the internet about this, but in the end, if you are clean, your clothes are clean, and you are still concerned about an increase in body odor or feel like you smell “different” than usual, it may be a good idea to get a check-up and make sure everything on the inside is functioning correctly.

This question from a reader was answered by Pamela deWilde, DO. She practices at Robert C. Byrd Clinic in Lewisburg.

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