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The link between body odour and health

by CBHS | Mar 07, 2017
Sweat stained armpit

If you’ve ever been on a train in the middle of an Australian summer, you’ll be extremely aware of how potent the smell of a fellow human can be. While no-one wants to come to their work station and find a bottle of deodorant waiting for them, it’s perfectly natural to give off an unpleasant odour if you’ve been sweating hard or stressing out.

But first, let’s talk about where the smell is coming from.

It’s not the sweat that smells

As much as it might make you uncomfortable, or embarrassed, or work as an adhesive to stick you to the couch, sweat isn’t the enemy. It’s one of your body’s best friends.

There are two places two types of glands that produce sweat:

Eccrine glands: eccrine glands are found in the skin all over your body, and they regulate your temperature. They’re active from birth, and release sweat when triggered by an increase in temperature caused by exertion and/or your immediate climate.

Apocrine glands: these are found mainly under your arms (armpits) and around the groin. Apocrine glands become active during the hormonal changes that happen during puberty, and are triggered by temperature as well as anxiety, stress, or further hormonal changes.

Where does the smell come from?

To bacteria, your sweat is absolutely delicious. Bacteria living on the skin will break down the protein in your sweat to acids, and the waste produced causes the odour we associate with bad BO.

The reason why it’s more potent in places like your armpits, groin and feet is that those parts of your body are usually darker and damper with less exposure to the elements. This is also true of other skin folds, like those found under the breasts or around the stomach.

Why does my body odour smell like it does?

There are a few reasons your body odour might have its particular scent:

It’s unique to you
Your odour is completely unique to you. For those who’ve been in a long-term relationship or share an unfortunately small amount of office space will most likely be able to recognise their partners’ smell.

It’s determined by a lot of factors coming together, like your age, fitness, gender, genetics and so on. Sure, it’s not as romantic as a fingerprint, but it’s only yours, just the same.

You might be sick

The idea of smell and sickness have always been closely related. It wasn’t that long ago in human history that we thought that disease was caused by ‘bad air’, in what we now refer to as miasma theory.

It also seems intuitive that sickness would impact how you smell. For anyone that’s been through a fever, it’s hard not to notice how strong your BO becomes; but considering how much more we sweat, as well as our likelihood of staying in bed/wear warmer clothing, it seems more likely it’s the bacteria reacting to the sweat as opposed to being the sickness itself.

However, there’s now some evidence to suggest that we’re able to smell when someone is sick.

While the study is limited, it purports that people show an aversion to those with increased immune system activity. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes a lot of sense – avoiding someone who’s ill will lessen the likeliness of becoming ill yourself.

An older study from 1998 suggests that different diseases have different scents:

  • Scrofula smells like stale beer
  • Typhoid fever smells like baked bread
  • Yellow fever smells like a ‘butcher’s shop’
  • Diabetes smells like rotten apples

None of these are definite however, and if you are concerned about your health for any reason (smell included) we suggest you see your local GP.

You might have trimethylaminuria

Trimethylaminuria is a metabolic disorder caused by a genetic mutation. Basically, the body is unable to break down trimethylamine, a compound found in eggs, fish, liver and legumes. As the trimethylamine builds up, it’s released through sweat, breath, urine and reproductive fluids, leading to a scent that has a fishy odour.

So far, it doesn’t seem to contribute to any other health problems, and symptoms can be reduced with some dietary changes and specific soaps.

Your diet

You are what you eat, especially where food is concerned.

Foods containing sulphur (like broccoli and cauliflower), spices, or drinking alcohol can all affect the way that you smell. All of these relate to how the body breaks down these different elements and then releases them, like through sweat, pores, breath and urine.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘sure-thing’ diet than can make you smell like a summer’s dream or crisp fruit salad. If you are determined to change your diet to affect a floral odour, start your experiment by including more healthy, cleaner foods.

We all smell

Again, all of us have a natural body odour, and there’s nothing to be ashamed about. Simply wearing deodorant, washing daily, and regularly changing your sheets and towels should be enough to keep you smelling clean.


All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here
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