Bad Body Odor: what it Says About Your Health

Many body odors are normal, but when they gross you out, that could signal an illness. “Diseases change the balance of chemicals in the body,” explains William Hanson, M.D., professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania Health System in Philadelphia. Those chemicals can trigger small changes in the scent of breath, urine and other body fluids. “Generally, our sense of smell isn’t sensitive enough to pick all these up,” Dr. Hanson says.

But machines and dogs can.Researchers have developed prototypes of electronic noses that can pick up the early odor changes caused by cancer and pneumonia. Dogs, with their sensitive sense of smell, are sometimes able to pick up changes in a person’s scent that indicate a disease such as cancer.(To read more about how dogs spot illnesses, read “Beyond Guide Dogs.”)But you don’t need an electronic nose or Fido to figure out what some odors signal. Here’s a guide to common smells and what they say about your health.Bad Body Odor #1: “An overpowering, foul odor, like rotting garbage,” says Natasha Johnson, M.D., director of the Vulvovaginal Center at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

What Might Be Causing It: A forgotten object, such as a tampon, in your vagina.“Occasionally, a woman just forgets she already has a tampon in,” says Miriam Greene, M.D., associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City, and co-host of the show “Sexual Health” on Sirius/XM Channel 81, Doctor Radio.If that’s the cause, within about 24 to 48 hours you’ll notice a “very pungent smell caused by vaginal bacteria multiplying,” she says.Other Symptoms: You may also have a feeling of pressure or general discomfort, but for many women, the powerful odor is the only symptom, Dr. Greene says.Expected Treatment: Check to see if you forgot a tampon.But, Dr. Greene admits, “Once my patients can’t find the string, they’re afraid to dig too deep.”

Whether or not you remove the tampon yourself, follow up with a doctor because there’s a chance that if it’s been there a long time, bacteria grew and caused an infection.“I always like to treat with an antibiotic cream just in case the overgrowth of bacteria leads to an infection,” Dr. Greene says.Bad Body Odor #2: Vaginal discharge with a pasty, yeasty smell, like bread doughWhat Might Be Causing It: Vaginal yeast infection caused by an overgrowth of the fungus candida. Candida occurs naturally in the vagina, but its growth is usually kept in check by acid produced by another naturally occurring bacteria, lactobacillus.

When this balance is disrupted – often by antibiotics, pregnancy, diabetes or a compromised immune system – a yeast infection can result. Because yeast grows best in a warm, moist environment, an infection can also develop when you wear tight, damp clothing, such as a bathing suit, for long periods. Other Symptoms: A thick, white discharge. Plus, “you’ll have a lot of itching,” Dr. Greene says. “Your tissues will become inflamed and may eventually crack, which can cause a lot of pain,” she adds. Expected Treatment: Try an over-the-counter antifungal remedy for three days, Dr. Greene advises. If symptoms worsen or don’t improve, see your doctor. You may need a stronger prescription cream or even an oral antifungal medicine, such as fluconazole, she says.

The odor also may have another cause, such as a bacterial infection, Dr. Johnson says. “When they have a discharge, most of my patients assume it’s a yeast infection,” she says. “Often that’s not the case, so I prefer to see them to confirm the diagnosis.” Bad Body Odor #3: A strong foul-smelling or fishy odor from your vagina What Might Be Causing It: Bacterial vaginosis, which develops when “good” bacteria (lactobacillus) get outnumbered by “bad,” infection-causing bacteria in the vagina. The odor is often most noticeable after sex, or during or just after your period, Dr. Johnson says. That’s because semen and menstrual blood have a high pH (meaning they are acidic). This acidity causes the bacteria to release amines, organic compounds that cause foul smells, she explains.

Other Symptoms: You also may see a white or gray discharge and feel pain, itching and burning. Expected Treatment: Your doctor may analyze a culture to confirm the diagnosis. If you have bacterial vaginosis, the standard therapy is an oral antibiotic, usually metronidazole or clindamycin. Bad Body Odor #4: A pungent urine smell that hits your nose as soon as your stream hits the toilet bowl and lingers in the air What Might Be Causing It: : A urinary tract infection (UTI) in the kidneys, bladder, ureters and/or urethra. The most common sites of infection are the bladder and urethra – the canal that carries urine from the bladder to the outside of the body. Other factors – such as vitamins, medication and foods – can change your urine’s scent, too.

For example, “Asparagus can change the odor of your urine, but that usually lasts through only one or two voids of your bladder,” Dr. Johnson says. If you’re taking vitamins or medications daily, the effects can last longer, she says. Other Symptoms: : A UTI is usually accompanied by other symptoms, including burning, urgency, leaking, pain and possibly cloudy or bloody urine. If you develop nausea, lower back pain or fever, you may have a kidney infection.Expected Treatment: : Your doctor will culture your urine and prescribe an antibiotic. She also may suggest these strategies to make you feel better while you have a urinary tract infection and to prevent future ones:

If these steps don’t work, see a podiatrist, who might prescribe a stronger antifungal medication. They may also do tests to determine another cause for the excessive sweating. For example, an overactive thyroid can cause palms and feet to sweat. If you have extreme sweating on your feet, your doctor may try a treatment to control it. For example, Botox injections block the secretion of the chemical in the nervous system that activates the sweat glands. Iontopheresis, in which water is used as a conductor for a small electric current, also blocks the flow of sweat. One caution: If you have diabetes, visit a doctor at the first sign of odor. Fungal and bacterial foot infections progress quickly and become more severe in people without diabetes. Is Your Hygiene Heinous?When it comes to your hygiene habits, would those who know you praise your penchant for cleanliness or cry foul over your questionable ways? Good hygiene cannot be underestimated - your health, not to mention reputation, depends on it.

  • Drink lots of water. This helps flush bacteria out of your system.
  • Drink cranberry juice. There is some evidence, although not definitive, that cranberry juice helps prevent, but not treat, UTIs, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
  • When you have to go, go. Urination flushes bacteria out of your bladder.
  • Always wipe from front to back to avoid bringing fecal bacteria toward your urinary tract.

What Might Be Causing It: : Diabetes, which occurs when blood glucose levels are too high. Insulin is a hormone that helps your body use the glucose (sugar) in foods to produce energy. When your body doesn’t make insulin, as in type 1 diabetes, or doesn’t use it well, as in type 2, you can develop the disease. Untreated diabetes can eventually lead to blindness, kidney failure, damaged nerves, heart disease and stroke. Of every 100 pregnant women, between three and eight women will develop gestational diabetes, which lasts for the duration of the pregnancy. Untreated gestational diabetes can harm both mother and fetus.

Other Symptoms: : People with diabetes experience excessive thirst and frequent urges to urinate. They also may have frequent infections, including urinary tract and yeast infections. Other symptoms are poor circulation, including numbness in feet and hands, wounds that don’t heal and blurred vision. Expected Treatment: : Before starting treatment you’ll first need to determine with your doctor whether or not you are diabetic. Several blood tests can diagnose diabetes, including:

  • Fasting plasma glucose test (FPG), in which the level of glucose in your blood is measured after eight hours of fasting
  • Oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT), in which you drink a glucose-containing beverage after eight hours of fasting. Two hours later, your blood glucose level is measured.
  • Random plasma glucose test, a simple test of the glucose in your blood

The test results should be confirmed by a second test on a different day, according to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse.While there’s no cure for diabetes, it can be managed with diet, physical activity and medication. Learn more in our Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes Health Centers.Bad Body Odor #6: Your breath smells foul, like you haven’t brushed or flossed in a week What Might Be Causing It: : Sinusitis, an inflammation of tissues in the sinuses – hollow spaces in the bones that connect with your nose. It can be caused by a bacterial or viral infection or allergies.Your breath smells bad because infected mucus from your sinuses drains into the back of your throat, explains Michael Perskin, M.D., director of Faculty Group Practice at NYU Langone Medical Center, in New York City.

Other Symptoms: : A sinus infection can cause intense nasal congestion and pressure, a decreased sense of smell, postnasal drip and cough.You also may notice a thick or greenish-colored nasal discharge or a slight fever, Dr. Perskin says. It’s possible to develop ear, tooth or jaw pain from the pressure caused by your inflamed sinuses. Expected Treatment: Sinusitis sometimes clears up without treatment. If your symptoms don’t improve – or if they get worse after several days – visit your doctor.Also, seek medical attention immediately if you develop swelling around the eyes or forehead, a severe headache, a stiff neck, vision changes or shortness of breath. Your doctor may list all your symptoms, examine your nasal passages and take a culture. If you have a bacterial infection, he will most likely prescribe oral antibiotics.

Bad Body Odor #7: When you take off your shoes the smell is so bad it fills the room What Might Be Causing It: : Bromhidrosis, a fancy term that means smell caused by sweat. “The sweat on your feet doesn’t smell on its own,” says Mark Kosinski, D.P.M., a podiatrist and professor at the New York College of Podiatric Medicine, in New York City. “The sweat creates a moist environment which, in your dark, warm shoes, is a perfect setting for growth of bacteria and fungi.” Those organisms are what’s causing the odor. “It’s a metabolic byproduct of the bacteria and fungi living on your feet,” Dr. Kosinski explains. Other Symptoms: : Your feet may itch and become red.

“Itching, which starts between the webs of toes and spreads, is a sign of fungal infection,” says Zeina Tannous, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School, in Boston. “Other signs are redness and flaking or scaling skin.”Expected Treatment: Start with over-the-counter products, Dr. Kosinski suggests. Use a deodorizing foot powder or even a regular underarm spray antiperspirant to stop the sweat. Stay away from cornstarch, though, Dr. Kosinski advises. Cornstarch actually provides food for the bacteria and fungi on your feet. His other tips for dealing with embarrassing foot odor include:

  • Spray both shoes and feet with an athlete’s foot spray powder.
  • Try activated charcoal insoles to combat the smell in your shoes.
  • Don’t wear the same shoes every day; and let them dry and air out between wearings.
  • Wear shoes with breathable uppers made of leather or canvas.
  • Wear cotton socks when possible; they allow feet to breathe better than synthetic fabrics do.

One caution: If you are diabetic, be sure to visit your doctor at the first sign of a bad odor. Fungal and bacterial foot infections progress quickly and become more severe in people with diabetes. Is Your Hygiene Heinous? When it comes to your hygiene habits, would those who know you praise your penchant for cleanliness – or cry foul over your questionable ways? Find out with this quiz where your habits rank on the hygiene meter.

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