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Body Odor

Overview, Causes, & Risk Factors

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, Candida albicans,\ \Candida tropicalis,\ \Candida glabrata,\ and \Candida parapsilosis.\ ',CAPTION,'Vaginal Yeast Infection');" onmouseout="return nd();">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
  • psychological conditions, which may cause a person to think he or she has a foul body odor when none exists
  • 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.

    Symptoms & Signs

    What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?

    When someone complains of body odor, the doctor will need more information. Some of the questions he or she might ask include:

  • When did the body odor start?
  • Can you describe the body odor?
  • Where does the body odor seem to be coming from? (Such as from all over, the breath, the armpits, the urine, or the genitals)
  • Is the odor constant or does it occur at different times?
  • Is there anything that makes the odor better or worse?
  • Is there any family history of body odor?
  • What other medical conditions do you have? (if any)
  • What medicines, herbs, or drugs are you taking?
  • Do you have any other symptoms?

  • Diagnosis & Tests

    How is the condition diagnosed?

    The doctor's role is to help make sure there is not a serious medical condition causing the body odor. Diagnosis starts with a medical history and physical exam. This may be all that is needed in some cases. In other cases, further testing may be needed.

    The tests ordered depend on the suspected cause. The doctor may order:

  • blood tests
  • liver function tests
  • chest X-rays
  • CT scans
  • Other tests may be needed in some cases.

    Prevention & Expectations

    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.

    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 communication\ \education, including reading, writing, and basic math\ \motor function\ \personal care, such as bathing, dressing, eating, and toileting\ \social skills\ \thinking skills, such as decision making, problem solving, and self-direction\ \working\ ',CAPTION,'Mental Retardation');" onmouseout="return nd();">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 catching. If the body odor is due to an infection, the infection may be contagious, such as a sexually transmitted disease. Inherited conditions may be passed on to children through the genes.

    Treatment & Monitoring

    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 carries a risk of bleeding or infection.

    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 doctor. 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 doctor.


    Author:John Riddle
    Date Written:
    Editor:Crist, Gayle P., MS, BA
    Edit Date:07/15/02
    Reviewer:Adam Brochert, MD
    Date Reviewed:07/27/01


    The New Wellness Encyclopedia, First Edition, 1995, Published by Rebus, Inc., 632 Broadway, New York, New York 10012.

    Integrative Medicine