What's that smell? Get rid of body odor

By , Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

If you notice a change in body odor, it could be a sign of a medical condition that needs treatment.

Have you ever caught a whiff of a foul odor after finishing an intense workout or spending an afternoon outside in the heat, only to realize the odor was coming from you? The smell goes with the sweat, and some of us give off a stronger and more pungent scent than others. 

Most of the time body odor isn’t a problem and a shower will quickly wash it away. But if you notice a change in body odor or you’re sweating much more than usual, it could be a sign of a medical condition that needs treatment.

What causes body odor?

You probably notice body odor most when you’re sweating. Your body has two main types of sweat glands — eccrine and apocrine — that release fluid (sweat) onto your skin’s surface when you’re hot. Sweat serves an important purpose. As perspiration evaporates, it cools your body temperature. 

Eccrine glands are all over your body. Apocrine glands are in areas like your armpits and groin. They produce a thicker, milky fluid.

Sweat itself doesn’t have a smell. The odor happens when bacteria come into contact with the perspiration your apocrine glands release. 

What diseases can cause body odor?

People who sweat more than usual may be diagnosed with the condition hyperhidrosis. Primary hyperhidrosis is a relatively rare condition that happens without a specific cause. Secondary hyperhidrosis is related to a medical problem, such as hot flashes with menopause, an infection, or an overactive thyroid gland (hyperthyroidism). Stress, certain medications, and alcohol use can also cause you to sweat more than usual.

If you’re still looking for a cause, look at your diet. Certain foods can change the way you smell. Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower produce gas. The breakdown of garlic and onions in your body releases sulfur-like compounds that waft out through your pores. And people with a rare condition called trimethylaminuria develop a fishy odor after eating seafood. 

How to get rid of body odor

The easiest way to eliminate body odor is by taking a bath or shower, which will remove bacteria from your skin. However, for many people a daily shower or bath may not be necessary. Showering a few times a week, especially after you exercise or do other activities that make you sweat, may be enough to rid you of body odor without drying out or irritating your skin. 

After your shower or bath, apply an antiperspirant and deodorant. Most over-the-counter antiperspirants contain aluminum-based compounds that block your body’s eccrine glands, preventing you from sweating. Deodorants repel the bacteria that cause odor, and may contain an additional fragrance. Some products combine an antiperspirant and a deodorant. If over-the-counter products don’t control sweating and body odor, your doctor can prescribe a stronger prescription-strength antiperspirant/deodorant. 

Wear clothing made from breathable fabrics such as cotton, silk, or wool and wash clothes after each wear. For exercise, you may prefer to wear moisture-wicking fabrics like polyester or nylon. You might also consider shaving your armpit hair, which allows sweat to evaporate quickly, before it can produce an odor. 

Secondary hyperhidrosis treatment addresses the condition that caused the excess sweating. Treatments for primary hyperhidrosis include antiperspirants, botulinum toxin injections, and prescription medications. For sweating so severe that it affects your daily life, surgery can block nerve signals from triggering your sweat glands or remove those glands entirely. 

Usually, body odor (as well bad breath) is more of a nuisance than a serious health issue. But if you find that you can’t manage sweating and odor with lifestyle changes like regular bathing and antiperspirant/deodorant, ask your doctor or dermatologist for advice.

Image: RapidEye/Getty Images

About the Author

photo of Stephanie Watson

Stephanie Watson, Former Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

Stephanie Watson was the Executive Editor of the Harvard Women’s Health Watch from June 2012 to August 2014. Prior to that, she worked as a writer and editor for several leading consumer health publications, including WebMD, … See Full Bio
View all posts by Stephanie Watson


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