Body Odor

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Introduction

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. Fluid 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.

Symptoms

What other symptoms might occur with body odor?

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
  • Night sweats
  • Sweating with weight loss

Other symptoms that may occur along with body odor

Body odor may accompany other symptoms including:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening 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:

Causes

What causes body odor?

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 other conditions, such as acromegaly (disorder recognized by continuing growth of the hands, feet and face), anxiety disorders, cancers, certain medications, glucose (sugar) control disorders, pheochromocytoma (tumor associated with hypertension), substance abuse, tuberculosis, or other infections.

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

  • Glucose (sugar) control disorders such as diabetes

  • Hereditary tendency to develop hyperhidrosis (genetic trait)

  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)

  • Lung disease

  • Medication side effects (antidepressants, antiseizures, omega-3 fatty acid)

  • Pheochromocytoma (tumor associated with hypertension)

  • Spine or nerve trauma

  • Substance abuse

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:

Questions for diagnosing the cause of body odor

To diagnose your condition, your doctor or licensed health care practitioner 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?

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 health care professional design specifically for you to reduce the risk of potential complications including:

  • Isolation or withdrawal, loss of work from embarrassment over persistent abnormal odor

  • Kidney failure

  • Liver failure

  • Spread of cancer

  • Spread of infection

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2018 Dec 26
  1. Hyperhidrosis. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/007259.htm.
  2. Sweating. MedlinePlus, a service of the National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003218.htm.
  3. Hornberger J, Grimes K, Naumann M, et al. Recognition, diagnosis, and treatment of primary focal hyperhidrosis. J Am Acad Dermatol 2004; 51:274.
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