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Body odour

Body odour is an unpleasant smell which is caused by bacteria on the skin breaking down sweat. It can be exacerbated by eating certain foods, taking certain medications and having a condition such as diabetes.

  • Common in people who sweat excessively 
  • Usually occurs in areas such as the armpits and groin
  • Treatment may require changing current medication

If you are worried or embarrassed about your body odour and would like some advice about what you can do to alleviate it, one of our GMC-registered clinicians may be able to help. You can speak to them via our online video consultation service, from 9.30am to 4.30pm, five days a week.

Body odour
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Possible causes

What causes body odour?

The apocrine glands, which fully develop during puberty, are the cause of body odour. In general, body odour is more of a problem in men because they produce more sweat. Apocrine glands are found in the genital areas, eyelids, armpits, breasts and ears.

The following factors are strongly associated with causing body odour:

  • Having hyperhidrosis, which is a condition where sweating is excessive
  • Being overweight
  • Eating spicy foods or foods that are particularly rich
  • Using certain medications such as antidepressants
  • Having a medical condition such as diabetes
  • Doing exercise, especially in hot weather

There are a few other conditions which could also cause the body to sweat excessively, which can in turn lead to body odour. An overactive thyroid can cause excessive sweating, as can a dysfunction with the liver and kidneys. If toxins are not removed from the digestive tract, body odour can become noticeable.

It’s also possible that a rare genetic metabolic disorder can lead to body odour. Trimethylaminuria is a condition that reduces the body’s ability to break down chemicals on your skin, resulting in a distinctive ‘fishy’ smell. 

Diagnosing the cause of body odour

In order to diagnose the cause of body odour, a doctor is likely to follow some basic procedures, such as asking you about your medical history, conducting a simple physical exam and possibly carrying out some tests.

A doctor will inquire as to when you started to experience body odour, and how often it’s  noticeable. A clinician will also conduct a simple examination, identifying the areas where the smell is stemming from, and looking to establish whether it is accompanied by excessive sweating.

If a doctor suspects that there may be an underlying cause for the body odour, such as hyperthyroidism or diabetes, they may decide to perform some tests.

With hyperthyroidism, this involves some blood tests, to measure the level of thyroid hormones T4 and T3, which are higher in those with the condition. A diagnosis for diabetes can be made by assessing the BMI, before getting a blood test for levels of glycated hemoglobin. This indicates the average blood sugar level and the extent of its attachment to hemoglobin (as a percentage). 

In rare circumstances, if a doctor suspects that the cause may be related to a kidney or liver dysfunction, they may perform some liver function tests. This involves measuring the levels of liver enzymes, proteins and bilirubin in the blood. In the event that there is an issue with the kidneys, it’s more likely that a doctor will conduct a urine test called an ACR (albumin-to-creatinine ratio), which tests if there is any albumin in the urine which would indicate that the kidneys are not filtering the blood properly.

Body odour can be a sensitive problem, and if you notice it but cannot decipher what the cause is, you may want to speak to a doctor. Our GPhC-registered clinicians can issue advice, prescriptions for treatment and referrals to specialists, where appropriate. They are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday, via our online video consultation service.

Page last reviewed:  02/09/2020
Types of Treatment

How is body odour treated?

Treatment for body odour usually takes the form of taking preventative measures and making lifestyle adjustments, unless there is an underlying cause; in which case, this needs to be treated.

If a doctor cannot ascertain what the underlying cause is, there are some measures that can be taken to prevent exacerbating body odour:

  • Washing daily with warm water in order to kill bacteria on the skin. 
  • Wearing clothing that is loose fitting and made from natural fibres, to allow the skin to breathe
  • Avoiding spicy foods that can make sweat more pungent
  • Shaving areas such as the armpits can improve body odor, as there is less time for the bacteria to break down substances that can cause the smell.
  • Using antiperspirant to help prevent sweating

If body odour is triggered by a condition such as diabetes or hyperthyroidism, it will require long-term treatment. 

Hyperthyroidism can be treated with medications such as thioamides, which stop the production of hormones. Radioiodine is another potential treatment, which involves intentionally damaging cells in the thyroid to reduce the amount of hormones it produces. These treatments may help to stop the sweating which is causing the body odour.

Managing diabetes depends on whether it is type 1 or 2. Type 2 diabetes involves medication to lower the blood sugar levels over a number of months, combined with lifestyle measures such as losing weight and eating healthily. Type 1 diabetes involves insulin therapy for life, combined with monitoring your diet and blood sugar levels.

If body odour is caused by a side effect of a medication such as antidepressants, a doctor may recommend adjusting your treatment plan if the body odour cannot be addressed via general lifestyle measures.

Body odour can be influenced by a variety of factors, and in most cases doesn;t requite treatment. However, an underlying cause, such as diabetes, is also possible. If you are concerned about body odour, you can contact one of our registered clinicians via our online video consultation service. They are available to speak to between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week, and can issue advice about managing body odour and treating underlying causes.

Page last reviewed:  02/09/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have body odour for?

If you have recently eaten particularly spicy or rich food, you may be able to detect this in your sweat. Similarly, if you have recently exercised and have not washed afterwards, you may notice body odour. This kind of body odour will last for no more than a day and should not cause any concern. However, in some cases body odour can persist if you have an underlying condition.

Is body odour serious?

Body odour is not usually a serious symptom as it’s typically a temporary reaction to various circumstances. 

However, persistent body odour due to sweating can be an indication of a serious undiagnosed condition, such as hyperthyroidism or diabetes.

Can I get treatment for body odour?

There is no specific treatment available to prevent body odour, but if it’s being caused by an underlying condition, there are treatments available. If the cause is related to a side effect of a medication, this can be adjusted accordingly.

How can I prevent body odour?

There are various measures which can be taken in order to alleviate body odour. A doctor may advise washing thoroughly every day and using antiperspirant, as well as avoiding potential triggers such as spicy and rich foods.

Can I speak to a doctor about body odour?

You may feel embarrassed about body odour, but it is a common issue and you should not feel any shame in contacting a doctor if it’s becoming problematic. One of our GMC-registered clinicians can issue advice, referral to specialists and prescriptions for treatment, where suitable. They are available to consult with between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

Page last reviewed:  02/09/2020

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