ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday December 16, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 29

Let’s do a body check shall we?

By Smriti Daniel

Strong body odour can be a source of social embarrassment, especially if others comment on it or begin to avoid your company. In many cases, a few simple precautions can help you prevent body odour from becoming an issue. However, at other times body odour could be an indication of a more serious underlying illness. This month Mediscene speaks with Dr. Gehan Arseculeratne, Consultant Dermatologist, about what to do about that sweaty smell and when you ought to get medical advice.

Each of us has our own distinctive smell. In fact, this smell is part of what attracts other people to us and us to them; for instance, even as children we are comforted by the way our parents smell. Occasionally, this smell takes on a distinctively sweaty aspect, but it is still nothing that can't be remedied by a good wash and a change of clothes. However, some people have a strong body odour that seems to persist, so much so that people around them may notice it.

Body odour is caused by a natural process. Sweat may be odourless on its own, but it can produce a mal-odour after you eat certain foods. Some areas of the skin, such as the armpits and genitalia are particularly susceptible because of the secretions of certain glands located in those areas. Glands like the apocrine glands secrete substances which may then be colonized by bacteria, further adding to the mal-odour.

Feet can be another odour zone. Many people choose to keep them covered in socks and closed shoes, both of which create the warmth and humidity that allow bacteria, as well as fungi, to flourish. Rarely, people are born mal-odorous, thanks to a genetically determined cause.

Body odour may become an issue with the onset of puberty when the glands such as the apocrine glands in the groin and the armpit become active. The problem is aggravated in cases where standards of hygiene are somewhat lax and in a humid climate such as ours, which encourages excessive sweating. Body odour may be strongly influenced by diet. Certain foods, which are a key part of the Sri Lankan diet - such as garlic and strong spices - contain chemicals that may be excreted through sweat. Smoking and alcohol may also intensify body odour.

Strange as it may seem, people with unpleasant body odour may be completely oblivious to their condition. Having lived with it, they may be accustomed to the smell, and are no longer aware of anything out of the ordinary.

Chronic body odour can be difficult to diagnose. Individuals have different degrees of sensitivity to smell. So when you go to a doctor with a complaint of body odour, he or she may not be able to smell it. For some, episodes of bad body odour may be punctuated by relatively odour-free periods, further complicating diagnosis. However, if it comes to your attention repeatedly, it is a good idea to get yourself checked up anyway, because this odour may be a symptom of underlying illnesses such as liver disease, kidney disease, fungal infections, a gastrointestinal disorder or some rare metabolic problem.

There may be regional variations in the degree of sweating which may be contributory to body odour. Excessive sweating, known as Hyperhydrosis, needs to be investigated to find out whether there could be an underlying, treatable medical condition such as excessive thyroid activity. Among various therapeutic options are applications of topical creams, tablet forms of treatment and injection of bacterial toxins such as botulinum toxin (Botox) into the skin of affected areas to control sweating. In rare cases of genetically caused malodour (such as in Fish Odour Syndrome,) oral antibiotics might be prescribed.

Improved hygiene in the form of more frequent baths or showers is one of the first steps. Here are some other suggestions: " Put on fresh clothes every day. When you do your laundry, wash your clothes at as high a temperature as possible, and then dry them out as quickly as possible. You may have noticed that when damp clothes are not attended to they produce a characteristic, unpleasant smell. If you have a long work day, carry a wash-kit (with liquid soap, deodorant and a hand towel) along with a change of clothes, so that you can freshen up before an important meeting.

  • Choose your clothes with care - synthetic fabrics and tight fitting clothes may aggravate the problem.

  • Along with the armpit and groin areas, wash your feet regularly, and dry them thoroughly. Use an antibacterial soap if necessary. Sandals or suitable shoes will prevent a build up of warmth and moisture. If possible, wear different shoes on alternate days.

  • After puberty, the use of an underarm deodorant or antiperspirant may help. The former makes the sweat acidic which retards bacterial growth. Antiperspirants, such as aluminium salts, on the other hand, block the sweat ducts so that less sweat is produced.
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