Body odour (bromhidrosis) is the unpleasant smell produced by bacteria on the skin that break down the acids in the sweat. Anyone who has reached puberty can produce body odour, as this is when the apocrine sweat glands develop, which produce the sweat that bacteria can quickly break down.
Sweating and Sweat Glands
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The average human body has three to four million sweat glands, of which there are two types:
It is a type of simple sweat gland that is located in almost all areas where there is skin. They produce sweat that reaches the skin’s surface via coiled ducts (tubes). When sweat evaporates from the skin, the body is cooled. Eccrine glands are responsible for regulating body temperature. The eccrine glands produce sweat which is high in salt, making it harder for bacteria to break down the protein.
Apocrine glands are located in several areas, including the armpits. These glands are found in the breasts, genital area, eyelids, armpits and ear. In the breasts, they secrete fat droplets into breast milk. In the ear, they help to form earwax. Apocrine glands in the skin and the eyelids are sweat glands.
Most of the apocrine glands in the skin are located in the groin, armpits and around the nipples of the breast. Apocrine glands in the skin usually have an odour; they are scent glands. The apocrine glands are mainly responsible for body odour because the sweat they produce is high in protein which bacteria can break down easily. In other words, a lot of body odour comes from the sweat produced by the apocrine glands.
Wearing shoes and socks, makes it difficult for the sweat to evaporate, giving the bacteria more sweat to break down into odourous substances. Moist feet also raise the risk of developing fungi which can also give an unpleasant smell.
Diagnosing Body Odour
In the vast majority of cases of body odour, it is not necessary to consult a physician. The individual himself/herself may be aware of it, and some self-care techniques will usually successfully treat the problem. However, some medical conditions may change how much a person sweats, while others can alter how an individual sweats. For example, hyperthyroidism (an over-active thyroid gland) or menopause can make people sweat much more, while liver disease, kidney disease, or diabetes can change the consistency of sweat so that the person smells differently. A physician needs to be consulted in the following circumstances,
- Sweating at night.
- Sweating much more than you normally do, without any logical reason.
- Cold sweats.
- Sweating disrupts the daily routine.
- If the body smells differently. A fruity smell could indicate diabetes due to high levels of ketones in the bloodstream. Liver or kidney disease can often make the individual have a bleach-like smell due to a build-up of toxins in the body.
Body odour usually becomes evident if measures are not taken when a human reaches puberty – 14-16 years of age in females and 15-17 years of age in males. People who are obese, those who regularly eat spicy foods, as well as individuals with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, are more susceptible to having body odour. People who sweat too much – those with hyperhidrosis – may also be susceptible to body odour, however, often the salt level of their sweat is too high for the bacteria to break down – it depends on where the excess sweating is occurring and which type of sweat glands are involved.
Sweat itself is virtually odourless to humans; it is the rapid multiplication of bacteria in the presence of sweat and what they do (break sweat down into acids) that eventually causes the unpleasant smell. Two types of acids are commonly present when there is body odour:
- Propionic acid (propanoic acid) is commonly found in sweat. Propionibacteria breaks down amino acids into propionic acid. Propionibacteria live in the ducts of the sebaceous glands of adult and adolescent humans. Some people may identify a vinegar-like smell with propionic acid because it is similar to acetic acid, which gives vinegar its sour taste and pungent smell.
- Isovaleric acid (3-methyl butanoic acid) is another source of body odour as a result of the actions of the bacteria Staphylococcus epidermidis, which are also present in several strong cheese types.
Body odour is most likely to occur in feet, groin, armpits, genitals, pubic hair and other hair, belly button, anus, behind the ears, and to some (lesser) extent on the rest of our skin. Each person’s unique body odour can be influenced by diet, gender, health, and medication.
Treating and Preventing Body Odour
The following steps may help to control body odour:
1. Wash daily with warm water: Take a shower or bath at least once a day. Warm water helps to kill bacteria present on the skin. If the weather is exceptionally hot, consider bathing more often than once a day.
2. Clothing: Natural fibres allow the skin to breathe, resulting in better evaporation of sweat. Natural-made fibres include wool, silk or cotton.
3. Avoid spicy foods: Curry, garlic and some other spicy (piquant) foods have the potential to make the sweat more pungent. A diet high in red meat may also raise the risk of developing a more rapid body odour.
4. If the body does not respond to the home remedies consult a physician about a suitable, product containing aluminium chloride. An antiperspirant blocks the sweating action of the glands, resulting in less sweating.
5. Deodorants make the skin more acidic, making the environment more difficult for bacteria to thrive.
6. Botulinum toxin: A very small and controlled dose of the toxin is relatively a new treatment is available for individuals who sweat excessively under the arms. The patient is given approximately 12 injections of botulinum toxin in the armpits – a procedure that should not last more than 45 minutes. The toxin blocks the signals from the brain to the sweat glands, resulting in less sweating in the targeted area. One treatment can last from two to eight months.
Treatment for Foot Odour
Smelly feet are less of a problem socially than underarm body odour because the unpleasant odour is usually contained by shoes and socks. The following steps may help to control foot odour:
1. Wash feet in warm water regularly at least once a day. Tea tree oil, when added to water, helps to kill off bacteria (do not apply tea tree oil directly to the skin). Make sure to dry the feet thoroughly afterwards, including in between the toes.
2. Wear a clean pair of socks each day. Socks must allow the sweat to evaporate. The best socks are those made of a combination of man-made fibres and wool.
3. Shoes with plastic linings should not be worn for long. A leather lining is better for sweat evaporation. In case of sweaty feet, do not wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row as shoes do not completely dry overnight.
4. If the soles of feet have patches of dead skin, remove them with a pumice stone. This is because bacteria thrive on dead skin.
5. Foot deodorants and antiperspirants may be used. In the case of athlete’s foot treat the fungal infection first with appropriate medication before using deodorants or antiperspirants.
6. Whenever possible, walk around barefoot, or at least slip out of the shoes regularly.
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