Body odor, we have all experienced the unpleasant reality of our own self stink, not to mention the smell of others. Sitting in the heat of the sun, working out at the gym, giving a presentation at work, all of these things can make you sweat. It’s both natural and healthy to sweat under these conditions. In fact, when you’re exposed to heat, exercising strenuously or under extreme emotional stress, you may lose several quarts of fluid in perspiration. A pea-sized bead of sweat can cool nearly 1 liter (about 1 quart) of blood 1-degree F.
Sometimes, however, the complex mechanism of perspiration goes awry, resulting in either excessive perspiration (hyperhidrosis) or little or no perspiration (anhidrosis).
Excessive sweating can be embarrassing and may sometimes signal a more serious health problem. Anhidrosis is potentially life-threatening.
Yet for most people, sweating is simply a minor nuisance. The body odor that sometimes occurs when you sweat is probably more upsetting. Although perspiration is basically odorless, it can take on an unpleasant smell when it comes into contact with bacteria on your skin. If you find this offensive, you’re not alone, Americans spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year on antiperspirants and deodorants to prevent body odor.
Signs and symptoms of Body Odor
Healthy people sweat. But when, where and how much vary widely. Factors that cause most people to sweat in excess causing body odor include:
- Exercise, especially strenuous exercise
- Hot weather
- Nervousness, anxiety or stress
Perspiration that’s triggered by emotion is most likely to occur on your face, underarms, palms and the soles of your feet. But how much you sweat and even the way your sweat smells can be influenced by your mood, certain foods and beverages, some drugs and medical conditions, and even by your hormone levels. What’s more, unfair as it seems, some people inherit a tendency to sweat heavily, especially on their soles and palms resulting in body odor.
Because it’s almost impossible to define normal sweating, try to learn what’s normal for you. That will help you pinpoint any unusual changes and reduce unpleasant body odor.
Causes of Body Odor
Your skin has two types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands occur over most of your body and open directly onto the surface of your skin. Apocrine glands develop in areas abundant in hair follicles, such as your scalp, underarms and genitals.
You have between 2 million and 5 million eccrine sweat glands. When your body temperature rises, your autonomic nervous system stimulates these glands to secrete fluid onto the surface of your skin, where it cools your body as it evaporates. This fluid (perspiration) is composed mainly of water and salt (sodium chloride) and contains trace amounts of electrolytes — substances that help regulate the balance of fluids in your body.
Apocrine glands, on the other hand, secrete a fatty sweat directly into the tubule of the gland. When you’re under emotional stress, the wall of the tubule contracts and the sweat is pushed to the surface of your skin where bacteria begin breaking it down. Most often, it’s the bacterial breakdown of apocrine sweat that causes a strong odor.
A number of factors can affect how much you sweat and even the way your sweat smells. Certain foods, drugs or medical conditions can cause excessive sweating, whereas drugs or conditions may interfere with your ability to perspire normally.
Excessive sweating (hyperhidrosis) & Body Odor
Some people sweat more than others for no apparent reason. But some factors may make you sweat heavily and experience excessive body odor. These include:
- Heredity. Some people inherit a tendency to sweat excessively, especially on their palms and the soles of their feet.
- Certain foods and beverages. Drinking hot beverages and those that contain caffeine or alcohol can make you sweat. Eating spicy foods can do the same thing.
- Certain drugs. Drugs that can cause excessive sweating include some antipsychotic medications used to treat mental disorders, morphine and excess doses of the thyroid hormone thyroxine. Overdoses of analgesics such as aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) also can cause intense sweating.
- Menopause. Women going through menopause may experience hot flashes, a rise in skin temperature accompanied by sweating and a feeling of intense heat, due to a drop in estrogen levels. Some menopausal women may also be awakened at night by soaking sweats followed by chills.
- Low levels of male hormones. Men with low levels of the male hormone testosterone or a condition known as hypogonadism, which caused reduced functioning of the testicles, also can have hot flashes.
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia). This occurs when the level of sugar in your blood drops below a certain level. It’s most common in people with diabetes who take insulin or oral medications that enhance the action of insulin. Early signs and symptoms include sweating, shakiness, weakness, hunger, dizziness and nausea. Some people may develop low blood sugar after eating, especially if they’ve had stomach or intestinal surgery. In rare cases your body may produce too much of the pancreatic hormone insulin, leading to low blood sugar.
- A fever occurs when your temperature rises above its normal range. You may have a fever with many types of bacterial and viral infections, ranging from a mild case of the flu to serious illnesses such as pneumonia. When your body temperature finally begins to return to normal, you may sweat profusely, which is your body’s way of dissipating the excess heat. Fevers followed by shaking chills may indicate a serious infection.
- Overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism). Sometimes the thyroid gland produces excess amounts of the hormone thyroxine. This can cause a number of signs and symptoms, including weight loss, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, nervousness and increased sensitivity to heat. It may also cause you to perspire much more than normal.
- Heart attack. This occurs when a loss of blood supply damages or destroys part of your heart muscle. A heart attack may sometimes be fatal. The symptoms of a heart attack include pressure, fullness or squeezing pain in your chest that lasts for a few minutes or pain that extends beyond your chest to your shoulder, arm or back; shortness of breath and intense sweating. If you experience these symptoms, get immediate medical care. Every minute counts after a heart attack.
- Tuberculosis. This chronic bacterial infection of the lungs affects more than 25,000 people in the United States each year. When left untreated, tuberculosis can be fatal. Among its signs and symptoms are a cough, slight fever and night sweats.
- Malaria. Worldwide, more than 200 million people have malaria, a disease that occurs primarily in rural areas of tropical and subtropical countries. About 1,000 new cases are reported each year in the United States, primarily among people returning from other parts of the world. The symptoms are related to the life cycle of the parasite that causes malaria, and may begin anywhere from 8 days to 1 year after you’ve been infected. Initially, you may have chills, headache, vomiting and nausea, but as your body temperature falls, you begin to sweat profusely. The cycle may recur every 48 or 72 hours.
- Certain types of cancer. Leukemia and lymphoma can produce unusual sweating patterns.
Decreased or nonexistent sweating (anhidrosis)
Most people worry about excessive sweating. But some people sweat very little or not at all, a condition that can be potentially life-threatening. Factors that may affect your ability to perspire normally include:
- Certain drugs. Antipsychotic medications used to treat serious mental disorders may interfere with the functioning of the sweat glands.
- Hypohidrotic ectodermal dysplasia (HED). Children with this rare disorder are born without sweat glands, which puts them at high risk of death from overheating (hyperthermia) — especially in hot environments. So far scientists have identified two genes that may be responsible for HED.
- Autonomic neuropathy. This disorder damages the nerves that help control some of the involuntary functions of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates your internal organs, sweat glands and blood pressure. Damage to these nerves can interfere with the activity of your sweat glands, making it hard for your body to maintain its normal temperature.
- Infections. Severe infections of the sweat glands — such as hidradenitis — may prevent the glands from functioning normally.
- Burns. Major (third-degree) burns, either from fire, chemicals or electricity — can damage the skin as well as sweat glands, muscle and even bone.
- Dehydration. This occurs when you don’t have enough water in your body to carry on normal functions. You can easily become dehydrated when you work or exercise in hot weather and don’t drink enough fluids to replace what you’ve lost through perspiration. Other common causes of dehydration include persistent vomiting or diarrhea or the use of medications that increase the flow of urine (diuretics). Eventually, you may lose so much water that you’re no longer able to sweat. Signs and symptoms may include thirst, weakness and confusion. Severe dehydration can be fatal. Older adults and young children are especially at risk.
- Heatstroke. Like dehydration, heatstroke can occur when you work or exercise strenuously in hot weather and don’t drink enough to replace the fluids you’ve lost. Older adults, people who are obese and children with HED are at high risk of heatstroke. Heatstroke is particularly serious because your body’s normal mechanisms for dealing with heat stress, such as sweating, are lost. The main heatstroke signs are a high temperature — generally greater than 104 F — with hot, dry skin and confusion or even coma.
Self-car for Body Odor
You can do a number of things on your own to reduce sweating and body odor. The following suggestions may help:
- Bathe daily. Regular bathing helps keep the number of bacteria on your skin in check.
- Dry your feet thoroughly after you bathe. Microorganisms thrive in the damp spaces between your toes. Use OTC foot powders to help absorb sweat.
- Choose shoes and socks made of natural materials. Shoes made of natural materials, such as leather, can help prevent sweaty feet by allowing your feet to breathe.
- Rotate your shoes. Shoes won’t completely dry overnight, so try not to wear the same pair 2 days in a row if you have trouble with sweaty feet.
- Wear the right socks. Cotton and wool socks help keep your feet dry because they absorb moisture. When you’re active, moisture-wicking athletic socks are a good choice.
- Change your socks often. Change socks or hose once or twice a day, drying your feet thoroughly each time. Women should try pantyhose with cotton soles.
- Air your feet. Go barefoot when you can, or at least slip out of your shoes now and then.
- Choose natural-fiber clothing. Wear natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool and silk, that allow your skin to breathe. When you exercise, you might prefer high-tech fabrics that wick moisture away from your skin preventing body odor.
- Apply antiperspirants nightly. At bedtime, apply antiperspirants to sweaty palms or soles of the feet. Try perfume-free antiperspirants.
- Try relaxation techniques. Consider relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or biofeedback. These can help you learn to control the stress that triggers perspiration.
- Change your diet. If foods or beverages cause you to sweat more than usual or your perspiration causes body odor, consider eliminating caffeinated drinks from your diet as well as foods with strong odors, such as garlic and onions.
To help prevent dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke:
- Drink plenty of water. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink water — by the time you feel thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. If you’re exercising, drink before, during and after you exercise.
- Exercise when it’s cooler. In hot weather, try to exercise early in the morning or in the evening.
- Choose appropriate clothing. When the weather’s warm, wear loose, lightweight, natural-fiber clothing. In cooler temperatures, layer your clothes.
- Wear a hat. Keep your head covered when exercising or working outdoors in hot weather.
- Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol. Both these liquids are dehydrating.
- Pay attention to your body. Don’t ignore the warning signs and symptoms of heat stress, such as muscle cramps, nausea, dizziness or weakness.
Body Odor Treatment
For some people who sweat excessively, the answer may be simple: an over-the-counter antiperspirant used on the hands and feet as well as the underarms to treat body odor. Antiperspirants block your sweat ducts with aluminum salts, thereby reducing the amount of perspiration that reaches your skin. Deodorants, which can eliminate odor but not perspiration, turn your skin acidic, which makes it less attractive to bacteria. Although you may have heard stories linking antiperspirants and breast cancer, there’s no evidence of such a link.
Antiperspirants can cause irritation or even contact dermatitis, red, swollen, itchy skin. In fact, antiperspirants are the cosmetic product most associated with skin irritation. Deodorants, especially herbal or crystal deodorants, may be less irritating for most people and yet are very affective in treating body odor.
If over-the-counter products aren’t strong enough, your doctor may suggest a prescription antiperspirant. For more severe problems with sweating and body odor, he or she may recommend other treatments, including:
- Iontophoresis. In this procedure, a dermatologist uses a battery-powered device to deliver a low current of electricity to the affected area. Although iontophoresis is painless and quite safe, it may be no more effective than a topical antiperspirant.
- Botulinum toxin (Botox). This is the same product that helps smooth facial wrinkles by paralyzing certain muscles. Researchers have discovered that Botox injections are also an effective way to treat severe hyperhidrosis by blocking the nerves that trigger the sweat glands. Botox isn’t a cure-all, however. It may take several injections to achieve the desired results, the treatment can be painful, and the results only last about 4 months. In addition, although Botox stops sweating, it doesn’t prevent body odor.
- Surgery. In rare cases surgery may be an option. If excess sweating occurs just in your armpits, removing the sweat glands may help. Another procedure involves cutting the nerves that carry the messages from the sympathetic nerves to the sweat glands. At one time this was a major operation, requiring large incisions in the chest or back to reach the spinal column, where the nerves are located. You typically stayed in the hospital a week and could expect to spend a month recovering. But today the surgery can be performed laparoscopically using a procedure known as endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy. It requires just three small incisions for a video telescope and small surgical instruments. Although the operation is delicate, it typically requires only a day in the hospital and produces minimal scarring. Following the surgery, sweating on the hands permanently stops. But increased sweating can occur elsewhere on your body, such as your back or the back of your legs, body odor is reduced.
Below is one link that provides documentation to what we believe to be a safe and effective alternative to treating and preventing body odor.
Control Sweating and Provide Probiotic Balance
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Crohn’s Disease and Living Probiotics
Diseases & Illnesses A to Z