What is sweating and body odor?
Sweating is the secretion of fluids by sweat glands (made up of eccrine glands and apocrine glands) onto the surface of the skin, mainly for the purpose of maintaining body temperature within an ideal range. When body temperature rises due to physical exertion or being in hot surroundings, the evaporation of sweat from the skin produces a cooling effect.
Sweat itself does not smell but body odor may occur when bacteria on the skin break down acids contained in the sweat produced by apocrine glands, which are located in the armpits, breasts, and genital-anal area. The bacteria’s waste products are what produce the smell.
Who is more likely to experience sweating and body odor?
Body odor begins to occur once a person reaches puberty, as this is when the apocrine glands become developed. Men on the whole have more frequent problems with body odor because they sweat more than women.
What are the most common causes of sweating and body odor?
Excessive sweating is called hyperhidrosis, and is defined as sweating even when the body does not need to be cooled. There are two types of hyperhidrosis:
Primary - not related to another medical condition
- Person is generally healthy but has probably experienced heavy sweating since childhood or adolescence.
- Excessive sweating may occur in just one or two areas of the body such as the palms, feet, underarms or forehead, while the rest of the body remains dry. Usually both sides of the body are affected equally.
- Sweating usually begins when the person wakes up in the morning. Sweating through the night is not common.
- It occurs at least once a week but in many people more often than this.
Secondary - there is an underlying cause of excessive sweating
- Sweating occurs over the entire body or possibly on only one side of the body.
- It usually begins as an adult.
- It can be triggered by certain medications, food supplements, or consumption of garlic, caffeine, nicotine, spices, curries and other odorous foods.
- Medical conditions include:
What causes sweating and body odor?
The exact cause of primary hyperhidrosis is not known. Even though stress and anxiety can trigger episodes of sweating, primary hyperhidrosis is not classified as being a mental condition. Some recent studies point to a genetic basis, as it appears to run in members of the same family.
Secondary hyperhidrosis is more common and is caused by a number of disorders, as noted above.
Care and Treatment
How are sweating and body odor treated?
Treatments for excessive sweating and body odor depend on the underlying cause, which a doctor can determine through a physical exam and testing. General treatments include:
- Keep the skin clean by taking a daily bath or shower.
- Regularly wash clothing, and wear clean clothes.
- Limit spicy foods and garlic in the diet, which can increase body odor. The same may be true of a diet high in red meats.
- Use a topical antiperspirant, which works by pulling sweat back into the sweat glands. When the body receives a signal that the sweat glands are full, sweat production decreases. These include over-the-counter as well as prescription antiperspirants.
- Keep the armpits shaved so that sweat evaporates more quickly and does not have as much time to interact with bacteria.
- Wear clothing made of natural fibers (wool, cotton or silk) that allow the skin to breathe.
- A treatment called iontophoresis can help with sweaty hands and feet. The affected areas are placed in water for about 20 to 40 minutes, and a low-voltage current is sent through the water. At first, 2 to 3 treatments per week are needed. After about 6 to 10 treatments, the sweat glands will temporarily shut down. Maintenance treatments are then used anywhere from once a week to once a month.
- Small injections of botulinum toxin in the armpits can temporarily block a chemical that promotes sweating.
- Prescription medicines may be used to prevent sweating. This treatment should be used carefully because the body may not have the ability to cool itself when needed.
- Surgery can remove sweat glands from under the arms or prevent nerve signals from reaching the sweat glands. The latter type of surgery is called a sympathectomy.
- Use of a hand-held device that emits electromagnetic waves can destroy sweat glands under the arms.
When to Call the Doctor
What symptoms of sweating and body odor are cause for concern?
- Frequent sweating or sweat-soaked clothing, even when not physically active or in a warm setting
- Sweating so heavy that it interferes with daily activities such as trying to hold a pen, turn a doorknob or use a computer
- Sweating while sleeping
- Skin consistently damp with sweat
- Frequent skin infections in body areas prone to sweating
- A fruity body odor, which could indicate diabetes
- A bleach-like body odor, which could be a sign of liver or kidney disease
- A sudden change in body odor or increase in sweating
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/09/2018.