Body odour. Common embarrassing conditions

Body odour is a smell produced by a person's body that many other people find unpleasant.
Dr Rob Hicks last medically reviewed this article in November 2007

What causes it?

Body odour is caused by a natural process involving sweat that occurs on the skin's surface. Sweat is odourless, but if left on the skin the bacteria that normally live there feed on it and break it down. This process releases chemicals that cause the unpleasant smell.

Some areas of the skin, such as the armpits and genitals, are more likely to produce body odour because these glands produce proteins and oily substances that bacteria feed on.
Sweat elsewhere in the body is mostly salty water, which bacteria don't thrive on so easily.

The feet produce their own characteristic odour. We tend to wrap them in socks and shoes, making them hot and humid and allowing fungi, as well as bacteria, to flourish. 

What are the symptoms?

The symptom is an unpleasant smell that may be worse in hot and sweaty conditions. The actual smell varies from person to person. The 'recipe' of sweat is individual. 

Body odour may be influenced by diet. Certain foods, such as curry, garlic and strong spices, contain chemicals that may be excreted in the skin.

The smell almost always disappears with a shower or bath, but can return rapidly, especially if a person puts on unwashed clothes covered in old sweat and bacteria.

Who's affected?

Young children rarely have body odour because the specialised glands in the armpits and genital areas don't become active until puberty. 

At puberty, sweat glands develop under the stimulation of hormones and protein. Oil production by the skin in the armpits and genital areas also increases. Body odour may then become a problem, especially if hygiene is poor.

Most people can easily recognise body odour. Unfortunately, the person who has it may be so accustomed to their own smell that they don't notice.

What's the treatment?

Body odour is often easily treated and a medical diagnosis isn't usually necessary. Take regular baths or showers, at least once a day. After puberty, using an antiperspirant can help to reduce sweating, and some also inhibit bacterial growth. This is rarely needed with younger children. 

Fresh clothes should be worn every day, and clothing should be washed at as high a temperature as possible, then dried as quickly as possible. Bacteria can survive in damp clothing and produce a characteristic smell. 

Feet should be washed regularly, dried thoroughly and treated with antifungal powder if necessary. Avoid closed, sweaty shoes such as trainers, and wear fresh cotton socks or keep feet bare in open sandals as often as possible. 

Avoiding very spicy food may also help.

For more severe sweating, called hyperhidrosis, injecting botulinum toxin (Botox) into the skin near the armpit, the removal of some sweat glands from the armpit, or destroying nerves that control armpit sweating, may be recommended.

 By: Dr Trisha Macnair. BBC Health


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