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What's That Smell? Possibly a Health Issue

Body odors can indicate serious medical problems

Body odor


Odd smells on your breath may be about more than what you ate for dinner.

Many people feel self-conscious about body or breath odor and may wish to cover it up with deodorant, perfume or mouthwash. But by just masking smells, people could be ignoring serious health issues, according to medical experts.

Catch your breath

Do you notice your breath smelling fruity? It may not just be the peach you had with lunch, but rather a very serious medical complication of diabetes. Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) occurs when your body is running low on insulin, causing your blood sugar to spike, Robert Gabbay tells Men's Health. Gabbay, chief medical officer at the Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston, said that the condition is more common in people with type 1 diabetes than type 2.

With this condition, your body isn't creating the energy needed to function properly, and it breaks down fatty acids for fuel, which creates a build-up of acidic chemicals called ketones in the blood. One such acid, acetone, causes the fruity smell, Gabbay said. DKA can be a significant health problem, even leading to diabetic coma or death, according to the American Diabetes Association (ADA). If you notice the smell along with other symptoms such as a very dry mouth, difficulty breathing and abdominal pain, ADA recommends contacting your health care provider or going to the emergency room immediately. 

On the other side of the breath spectrum, a foul smell could be a warning sign of undiagnosed sleep apnea, especially if you brush your teeth regularly. Sleep apnea causes breathing to stop and start while you sleep and makes your mouth very dry, a common cause of bad breath. The condition leaves sufferers chronically tired and also at greater risk for diabetes, stroke, heart disease and memory loss. If you have good dental hygiene but are still waking up with bad breath, it may be time to talk with your doctor.

Skin conditions

While some body odor is normal, a particularly strong smell could be a sign of skin disease, doctor and author Jennifer Stagg tells Bustle. "Skin infections can present with a putrid odor from the byproducts of bacterial growth. Gangrene, which is dying tissue, has one of the most offensive odors and smells like rotting meat." 

Internal health issues may result in unpleasant body odors (BO), as well, such as liver and kidney disease and hyperthyroidism, which can lead to excessive sweat and increased BO. Stagg recommends talking with your doctor if you notice a strong smell from your skin. 

Other smelly symptoms to watch: 

  • Stinky feet: You may have a fungal infection. Watch for dry, scaly skin around your toes, redness and blisters, which may be signs of athlete’s foot, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association. Untreated athlete's foot can lead to bacterial infections like cellulitis.
  • Odorous stools: This could be a sign of lactose intolerance, reports. If you notice your gas or bowel movements are more smelly after eating or drinking dairy, you may want to check in with your doctor to make adjustments to your diet. 
  • Pungent urine: If you notice a strong chemical smell when you urinate, you may have a urinary tract infection. When bacteria, typically E. coli, enter your urinary tract and urethra they multiply in your bladder, causing an infection. The smell is one of the signs of a high white blood cell count in the urine, a very reliable indicator of urinary tract infections, according to the New York Times Health Guide.