What is body odor?
Body odor is any strong or unusual odor related to the body. The medical term is bromhidrosis. Occasional abnormal body odor may be a temporary effect of a metabolic change, such as fruity breath in diabetic ketoacidosis. But by far the most common cause of abnormal body odor is excessive perspiration or hyperhidrosis (overactive sweat glands).
Sweating, or perspiring, is necessary to cool the body and is triggered by warm temperatures, exercise or physical exertion, or as a stress response to nervousness, fear, embarrassment or anger. Fluids from sweating in combination with skin bacteria produce the familiar odor recognized as body odor.
The two types of hyperhidrosis include primary or focal hyperhidrosis, in which your hands, feet and armpits sweat excessively; and secondary hyperhidrosis, in which you may sweat all over your body or in one area besides your feet, hands or armpits. Secondary hyperhidrosis is caused by other conditions, such as anxiety disorders, cancers, diabetes, hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid), lung disease, pheochromocytoma (tumor associated with hypertension), tuberculosis (serious infection affecting the lungs and other organs), or other infections.
Hyperhidrosis and body odor are rarely emergency conditions.
If your body odor is persistent or causes you concern, seek prompt medical care.
What other symptoms might occur with body odor?
Sudden confusion or loss of consciousness, even for a brief moment
Body odor may accompany other symptoms that vary depending on the underlying disease, disorder or condition. Symptoms that often affect the endocrine system may also involve other body systems.
Endocrine symptoms that may occur along with body odor
Body odor may accompany other symptoms affecting the endocrine system including:
- Cold or clammy hands
- Extreme, extended, unexplained sweating
- Sweating with weight loss
Other symptoms that may occur along with body odor
Body odor may accompany other symptoms including:
- Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
Symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening or serious condition
Rarely, body odor may accompany a life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
- Chest pain or pressure
- Loss of vision or changes in vision
What causes body odor?
The endocrine system controls the metabolic system, including sweating. Occasionally, abnormal body odor may be an effect of a metabolic change, such as fruity breath in diabetic ketoacidosis or changes in body chemistry in liver or kidney failure.
However, abnormal body odor is usually caused by hyperhidrosis (excessive, abnormal sweating). Primary hyperhidrosis (affecting only the hands, feet and armpits) has no identified cause, but may be genetic. Secondary hyperhidrosis is caused by an underlying condition.
Causes of body odor
Body odor may be caused by a number of disorders that either cause excessive sweating or directly contribute to an abnormal odor. Examples include:
- Acromegaly (disorder recognized by continuing growth of hands, feet and face)
- Anxiety disorders
- Dietary consumption of cruciferous vegetables, asparagus, garlic, cumin, curry, seafood, and excessive alcohol
- Glucose (sugar) control disorders such as diabetes
- Hereditary tendency to develop hyperhidrosis (genetic trait)
- Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
- Lung disease
- Medication side effects (antidepressants, antiseizure medications, methadone, omega-3 fatty acids)
- Pheochromocytoma (tumor associated with hypertension)
- Spine or nerve trauma, which can disrupt the nerve pathways of sweating
- Substance abuse, as certain drugs disrupt the body’s ability to regulate temperature
- Tuberculosis or other infections
Serious or life-threatening causes of body odor
In some cases, body odor may be a symptom of a serious or life-threatening condition that should be immediately evaluated in an emergency setting. These conditions include:
- Kidney failure
- Liver failure
What are the risk factors for abnormal body odor?
Risk factors are underlying diseases or disorders or environmental situations that increase the likelihood of developing a condition.
For the most common cause of abnormal body odor—bromhidrosis—risk factors include:
- Anxiety disorder or high stress
- Central nervous system damage, such as a spinal cord injury or stroke
- Diabetes or other metabolic condition
- Endocrine disorder, such as acromegaly
- Family history of hyperhidrosis
- Kidney or liver failure
- Lung disease, including infections like tuberculosis
- Methadone therapy for opioid addiction
- Substance abuse
When should you see a doctor for body odor?
Most causes of body odor are not serious and home remedies can resolve the problem. However, there are times when seeing a healthcare provider is the safest option to determine if more serious causes are to blame.
See a doctor promptly for:
- Bleach-like body odor
- Fruity body odor
- Sudden change in body odor
You should also consult your doctor if your body odor causes you concern or embarrassment.
How is the cause of body odor diagnosed?
To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed healthcare provider will ask you several questions related to your body odor including:
- How long have you noticed an abnormal body odor?
- From what parts of the body do you most often detect an abnormal odor?
- Is the body odor accompanied by excessive sweating? Does the sweating occur more often in certain areas, such as your face, hands or armpits? Or does it occur all over?
- Do your hands ever feel cold or clammy?
- If you have sweating with this body odor, does it come on suddenly? Does it happen at specific times of day, such as at night while you sleep?
- If you have sweating with the body odor, does anything seem to trigger it such as anxiety?
- Have you had a fever?
- Do you have any other symptoms?
- What medications are you taking? Do you take any substances that could be addictive?
Doctors may also order blood or urine tests if there is high suspicion of an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes. However, it is not always possible to diagnose an underlying cause or condition. If the problem persists and your provider is unable to determine a cause, seeking a second opinion may give you more information and answers.
What are the treatments for body odor?
Body odor treatment is usually straightforward and involves using a deodorant. Deodorants work in two ways to address body odor. They reduce the number of bacteria on the skin by making a less favorable growth environment for them. In addition, they often contain fragrances that mask any odor that develops. Many deodorant products combine these actions with an antiperspirant to block sweating. For people with hyperhidrosis, prescription-strength antiperspirants may be necessary.
If your doctor finds an underlying medical cause of body odor, treating the condition should help resolve body odor issues.
Home remedies for body odor
There are several body odor home remedies you can use to help alleviate the problem. Strategies include:
- Bathing daily with an antimicrobial soap to reduce odor-causing bacteria on the skin
- Dressing in natural fabrics that let your skin breathe and wearing wicking fabrics during exercise
- Eliminating alcohol and strong-smelling foods from your diet, such as curry, garlic and onions
- Practicing relaxation techniques to manage stress—a common trigger of sweating
What are the potential complications of body odor?
Because body odor can be due to serious diseases, failure to seek treatment can result in serious complications and permanent damage. Once the underlying cause is diagnosed, it is important for you to follow the treatment plan that you and your healthcare professional design specifically for you. This will reduce the risk of potential complications of body odor or its causes including:
- Isolation or withdrawal, including loss of work and social living from embarrassment over persistent abnormal odor
- Kidney failure
- Spread of cancer
- Spread of infection