Body odor is the term used for any unpleasant smell associated with a person's body.
What is going on in the body?
People usually associate body odor with sweat, but sweat by itself does not give off an odor. Sweat is nothing more than water and salts expelled by the sweat glands to control body temperature. Bacteria on a person's skin can mix with the sweat and produce body odor. Body odor can sometimes be a sign of a more serious medical condition.
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Causes of body odor include:
- drugs, toxins, or herbs, such as alcohol, arsenic poisoning, cyanide poisoning, or cigarette smoking
- eating certain foods, such as garlic or raw onions, which can cause bad breath
- excessive sweating
- inborn errors of metabolism, such as a group of conditions known as aminoaciduria. These tend to be noticed in childhood.
- infections, such as a lung abscess or pocket of pus, skin infections, vaginal yeast infections, sexually transmitted diseases, or urinary tract infections. These can cause odor in the area of the infection. For instance, a lung abscess can cause bad breath.
- liver or kidney failure
- poor hygiene
- tooth or oral conditions, such as cavities, periodontal disease, which is disease around a tooth, or gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums. These are common causes of bad breath.
- tumors or cancer, which may cause an odor in the area of the tumor. For instance, tumors of the mouth or stomach may cause bad breath. Cancer of the cervix or uterus may cause a discharge from the vagina that has a certain odor to it.
- uncontrolled diabetes mellitus, or diabetes, a condition that causes increased blood sugar levels
Other causes are also possible. Sometimes, no cause can be found.
Occasionally, an individual complains of body odor when none exists. This can be a symptom of any of several psychological conditions.
What can be done to prevent the condition?
Prevention is related to the cause. For instance, avoiding drugs or toxins can prevent cases from this cause. Taking medicines as prescribed and monitoring blood glucose levels at home can prevent many cases due to uncontrolled diabetes. Regular dentist visits and regular teeth brushing with approved toothpaste can prevent many cases due to tooth diseases.
How is the condition diagnosed?
The role of the healthcare professional is, first of all, to see if there is a serious medical condition causing the body odor. Sometimes the cause is obvious to from the medical history and physical exam. In other cases, further testing may be needed, depending on the suspected cause.
The healthcare professional may order:
- blood tests
- liver function tests
- chest X-rays
- CT scans
Other tests may be needed in some cases.
Long Term Effects
What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Body odor may sometimes cause problems in the affected person's relationships. A person may feel shame, embarrassment, anger, frustration, or depression as a result of his or her body odor. Other long-term effects are related to the cause of the body odor. For instance, some of the aminoaciduria conditions can cause mental retardation, seizures, or even death. Cases due to an infection usually go away after treatment and often cause no long-term effects.
What are the risks to others?
Body odor is not contagious per se. If the body odor is due to a sexually transmitted or other infection, that infection may be contagious. Inherited conditions may be passed on to children through the genes.
What are the treatments for the condition?
A person who is prone to getting an unpleasant body odor should wash daily with soap. The individual might also consider using a deodorant with an antiperspirant, to help prevent sweating. A well-balanced diet following the food guide pyramid is also advised and may help in some cases.
Treatment is directed at the cause when one can be found. For instance, a person with an infection may need antibiotics. Someone with cancer may need surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy. A person who eats certain foods or takes certain toxins or drugs needs to stop eating or using these substances. Those with psychological conditions may need to see a therapist regularly or take medicines.
What are the side effects of the treatments?
Side effects are related to the treatment. Some people may have skin irritation or an allergy to certain deodorants. Antibiotics can cause allergic reactions and stomach upset. Surgery can be complicated by bleeding, infection, or reactions to anesthesia.
What happens after treatment for the condition?
A person who is prone to develop body odor can often prevent it with the use of deodorants that contain an antiperspirant. Those with diabetes or kidney or liver failure need lifelong monitoring and treatment for their conditions. Those with an infection often need no further monitoring or treatment once the infection has been treated.
How is the condition monitored?
Changes or response to treatment can be reported to the healthcare professional. Other monitoring is related to the cause. For instance, a person with diabetes needs to check blood sugar levels often. Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to the healthcare professional.
The New Wellness Encyclopedia, First Edition, 1995, Published by Rebus, Inc., 632 Broadway, New York, New York 10012.
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