Body odour is something we’ve all experienced from time to time and while it can leave us feeling embarrassed, unclean or even holding our noses, it can also be a sign of more serious health issues.
It’s common for the body to smell after physical activity, in hot weather or even after you’ve eaten certain foods and usually occurs when bacteria that live on the skin and feed on sweat. And while most B.O is the result of poor hygiene or the foods we’ve eaten, a leading health expert warns that changes in smells from the armpits, genitals, feet and other parts of the body could point to bigger health problems such as diabetes, kidney and liver disease, stress and hormonal changes.
“A sudden change in odour, I’d be seeking advice of a doctor,” Australian naturopath Mim Beim tells Starts at 60.
For example, some patients with type 1 diabetes can develop a condition called diabetic ketoacidosis – where the body starts to run out of insulin and life-threatening substances called ketones build up in the body. This can leave people with an array of symptoms including breath that smells fruity and bad body odour. It’s extremely serious and if someone with type 1 diabetes notices their body or breath’s odour changing suddenly, they should seek immediate professional help.
Beim also explains that the body has two major types of sweat glands – the eccrine and apocrine glands. While eccrine glands are located all over the body and work to cool us down during physical exercise, the apocrine glands are located behind the ears, in the armpits, feet, groin and genitals and are more sensitive when we are scared or stressed. The apocrine glands also produce a stronger scent so if your hygiene is up to scratch and there’s nothing else you think could be causing body odour, it could be a sign of a mental health issue.
In fact, a 2016 study published in the Stress and Skin Disorders Journal found a link between stress and hyperhidrosis disorder – where people sweat excessively and uncontrollably and is often diagnosed in those who experience mental health issues.
Meanwhile, it’s common for the body to produce a range unpleasant smells in people who are experiencing liver or kidney disease, with one study explaining liver failure is associated with a range of musty and sweet smells, while kidneys that are damaged can cause body waste or toxins to enter the blood stream and cause unpleasant odours.
Various health experts also claim that certain medications including antidepressants to cause body odour, but Beim says cases are rare and people should never suddenly stop taking their medication. She explains: “In my experience, I have not seen that to be the case. Some class of antidepressants do, but I’ve never seen it or heard of it. I wouldn’t want people to be going off their medication because of that.”
More often than not, she says body odour is usually the result of bacteria on the skin or the foods we’ve eaten. For example, foods containing garlic, asparagus, cheese, meats and onion are more likely to exit body through the skin and can cause an odour. Beim adds: “It can be hormonal changes, but it’s often hygiene.”
In cases where body odour is caused by hygiene issues, washing with an antibacterial soap or body wash can often fix the issue. Beim says tea tree and calendula are two natural antibacterials that change the pH levels in the skin and make it less inviting for bacteria to thrive. Similarly, people should avoid deodorants that contain perfume as this will simply mask a smell rather than targeting what’s causing the smell.
It’s also important to wash all areas of the body when taking a bath or shower, to change and wash clothes regularly so bacteria don’t thrive, opt for natural fabrics such as cotton, wool and silks and be aware that hair can trap smells. Health professionals can often assist with stronger antiperspirants when regular brands aren’t working and can suggest soap alternatives that will be best for your skin.
“Particularly as you get older when the skin becomes dryer and more fragile, there are some body washes that are good for the skin and also antibacterial,” Beim explains. “If you’ve not been washing every day, do that. If there’s a sudden change, definitely seek advice.”
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.
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