For many of us, the smells our bodies make aren’t easy to talk about. But they’re a natural part of life, and having questions about them is normal. In this post, we’re answering a few common questions about body odors — including what causes them and when they might be a cause for concern.
“Body odor” refers to any smell originating from a person. Although most people think of sweat when referring to body odor, our bodies actually produce odors in many different places.
The human body produces a wide range of substances, known as odorants, that have smells. Many of these substances are important for different bodily functions; however, when the substances accumulate, they can cause noticeable (often unpleasant) smells.
Body odor is a common concern — usually treatable at home and rarely something to be overly concerned about. However, if an unpleasant odor is left untreated, it can affect a person’s quality of life — and some persistent or recurring odors may indicate a health condition that requires medical attention.
No matter where you seem to have body odor, don’t be embarrassed — you’re not alone. It’s normal to have odors in almost every area of the body for a variety of reasons. If you find that an odor is severe or not treatable with over-the-counter products, make an appointment to speak with a healthcare provider.
(Read “How to Discuss ‘Embarrassing’ Topics with Your Doctor” for tips on broaching sensitive subjects at a medical appointment.)
What causes it? There are many causes of bad breath, including:
• Certain GI conditions
• Certain lung infections
• Certain medications
• Dry mouth
• Food stuck between the teeth
• Infections, such as sinus infections
• Not brushing or flossing enough
• Tobacco products
• Tonsil infections and stones
• Tooth and gum infections
What can I do about it? Often, bad breath can be cured by paying closer attention to oral hygiene. Other common solutions include:
• Decreasing coffee and alcohol intake
• Drinking more water
• Increasing brushing and flossing
• Trying mouthwash, especially in the morning and before bed
• Trying sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva production
• Quitting smoking
• Using a tongue scraper
Depending on the cause of the odor, you may require a referral to a dentist or another specialist.
What causes it? Body odor coming from your underarms a simple fact of life. It’s a natural process caused when sweat (which is usually odorless) comes in contact with normal bacteria on your skin, leading to an odor. Apocrine glands, which occur in parts of the body with many hair follicles, such as the groin and the armpit, produce a lot of sweat (these glands also produce most stress-related sweat).
What can I do about it? There are many ways to combat underarm odors, such as:
• Washing the area
• Shaving the area, as hair can trap odors
• Using antiperspirants or deodorants
• Wearing absorbent clothing that reduces sweat
It’s important to note that there is some concern among medical professionals about the effects of aluminum found in some antiperspirants, and there are questions about whether or not significant levels might impact health. Some people choose to purchase aluminum-free products.
What causes it? There are many causes of foot odor, including:
• Athlete’s foot (a skin fungal infection)
• Not drying your feet properly
• Wearing the same shoes or socks repeatedly
What can I do about it?
The good news is, there are many easy ways to combat foot odor, such as:
• Antifungal cream
• Changing socks frequently
• Keeping your feet dry
• Shoe deodorizers
What causes it? Passing gas is a natural and healthy bodily function, but we could all do without the odor that comes with it. You may notice that sometimes flatulence has a strong odor, and sometimes it has no odor at all. Here’s why: Our natural gut bacteria release sulfates as they break down food. When food sits too long in our intestines, the amount of sulfates can build up, which causes an odor. Eating foods high in sulfur can also cause stronger odors.
What can I do about it? This one can be a little tricky, as farts — including ones that smell — are a part of being human. That being said, if you’re noticing extremely strong odors, you can try:
• Avoiding foods that are high in sulfur, such as broccoli, cabbage, and lentils
• Avoiding foods that upset your stomach or that you may have an allergy to
• Trying probiotics
If your flatulence is severe — for example, if you’re frequently passing smelly gas, or are also experiencing persistent abdominal pain, recurring diarrhea or constipation, unexpected weight changes, incontinence, or signs of an infection, talk to a healthcare provider.
What causes it? There are many causes of odors that might come from the genital region of a person who has a penis.
• Balanitis (inflammation of the head of the penis)
• Smegma (a build-up of oils and skin around the penis)
• STI (sexually transmitted infection)
• UTI (urinary tract infection)
• Yeast or fungus infection, such as “jock itch”
• Stress (apocrine glands in the groin produce more sweat when we are under stress)
What can I do about it? Increasing genital-area hygiene and using over-the-counter products may clear up some of the issues. However, many genital odors are caused by infections or STIs, so it’s best to talk to your doctor about your concerns.
What causes it? Poop is another simple fact of everyday life. And the truth is, most of the time, it stinks. This is due to the foods we eat and the normal bacteria in our GI tracts. However, if you notice your poop has a particularly foul smell, it may be due to:
• Dairy intolerance
• Food allergies
• Some medications
What can I do about it? When it comes to foul-smelling stool, after you’ve tried avoiding foods that upset your stomach, it’s best to talk to your healthcare provider. While generally foul-smelling stool is common and normal, especially foul-smelling stool can sometimes be a sign of malabsorption and an underlying medical problem that needs to be evaluated.
(Read “Everybody Has Questions About Poop” for more answers.)
What causes it? There are many reasons urine may have an unusual smell, including:
• Foods that are high in sulfur
• Certain supplements
What can I do about it? If you notice a change in the smell of your urine:
• Increase vitamin C intake
• Try drinking cranberry juice
• Stay hydrated
Sudden and/or long-lasting changes in your urine that can’t be explained by diet and water intake should be discussed with a healthcare provider.
What causes it? The causes of vaginal odors can be slightly difficult to identify, as there are many different odors and causes. Here are the most common:
• Tangy or fermented — If the odor has a sour smell to it, chances are it’s from a good bacteria that are commonly found in the vagina — lactobacilli. The more of this bacteria that exist, the higher the chance of sour odor, similar to fermented foods.
• Coppery — Do you know the smell on your hands after you’ve been holding change? What you’re smelling is most likely copper, which is found in pennies. If you’re noticing that smell from your vagina, it could be from menstruation blood (which contains iron and can have a metallic smell) or from light bleeding after sex.
• Sweet and earthy — If you notice a smell that is sweet and earthy, similar to molasses, bacteria are likely to be the culprit again! Vaginal pH changes often, and sometimes, the odor can be slightly sweet smelling.
• Chemical — If you’re noticing a smell like you have just used bleach to clean your shower, there are two probable reasons. The first is bacterial vaginosis — a very common infection. The second is that the smell is actually ammonia coming from your urine.
• Smoky and earthy — A musty smell could mean that you’re stressed. Apocrine glands in the groin produce more sweat when we are under stress.
What can I do about it? When it comes to vaginal odors, the treatment is going to depend on the cause, so it’s best to ask your healthcare provider. This is especially true if the smell is accompanied by discharge, as this could be a sign of an infection or an STI.
For the most part, temporary body odors are normal. However, sometimes body odor may indicate something about our health. You should speak to your doctor if you notice a change in any body odor that lasts longer than a few weeks, or if you notice a simultaneous change in your overall health.
Having body odor is nothing to be embarrassed about, and trust us when we say that doctors have heard and seen it all. When it comes to discussing a body odor with your provider, it’s best to be straightforward and detailed if possible. This will help them accurately determine the cause of your body odor and the best course of treatment.
At Carbon Health, we offer high-quality, judgment-free care that is accessible to everyone. There is no topic too “weird” or too “embarrassing” when it comes to your health and wellness. We know that a relationship with a trusted healthcare provider is a key resource to overall health, and we’re here to provide the incredible care you deserve. Book an appointment for an in-person or virtual visit today.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.