Sweating and body odor are facts of life for most people. Heavy perspiration and body odor can happen when you exercise, when you're too warm, or when you're nervous, anxious or under stress.
Your body has two main types of sweat glands, and they produce two very different types of sweat. Both types are odorless, but the type of sweat produced in your armpits and groin smells bad when it combines with bacteria found normally on your skin.
Unusual changes in sweating — either excessive perspiration (hyperhidrosis) or little or no perspiration (anhidrosis) — can be cause for concern. Likewise, changes in body odor may be a sign of a medical problem.
For normal sweating and body odor, however, lifestyle and home treatments can effectively manage your symptoms.
Some people naturally sweat more or less than other people. Body odor also can vary from person to person. But you should see a doctor if:
- You suddenly begin to sweat much more or less than usual
- Sweating disrupts your daily routine
- You experience night sweats for no apparent reason
- You notice a change in your body odor
Your skin has two main types of sweat glands: eccrine glands and apocrine glands. Eccrine glands occur over most of your body and open directly onto the surface of the skin. Apocrine glands develop in areas abundant in hair follicles, such as your armpits and groin, and they empty into the hair follicle just before it opens onto the skin surface.
When your body temperature rises, your eccrine glands secrete fluid onto the surface of your skin, where it cools your body as it evaporates. This fluid is composed mainly of water and salt.
Apocrine glands, on the other hand, produce a milky fluid that most commonly is secreted when you're under emotional stress. This fluid is odorless until it combines with bacteria found normally on your skin.
You're likely to start by seeing your family doctor or primary care doctor. In some cases when you call to set up an appointment, you may be referred to a specialist in skin diseases (dermatologist).
Here's some information to help you prepare for your appointment, and to know what to expect from your doctor.
What you can do
Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your appointment. For sweating and body odor, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
- What is likely causing my symptoms?
- What are other possible causes for my symptoms?
- Is my condition likely temporary or chronic?
- What is the best course of action?
- What are the alternatives to the primary approach that you're suggesting?
- Is there a generic alternative to the medicine you're prescribing me?
What to expect from your doctor
Your doctor is likely to ask you several questions, such as:
- When did you begin experiencing symptoms?
- How often do you experience these symptoms?
- Do you always have these symptoms, or do they come and go?
- What, if anything, seems to improve your symptoms?
- What, if anything, appears to worsen your symptoms?
During your appointment, your doctor will ask about your medical history and conduct a physical exam. He or she may order blood or urine tests to determine if your problem is being caused by an underlying medical condition, such as an infection, diabetes or an overactive thyroid (hyperthyroidism).
If you're concerned about sweating and body odor, the solution may be simple: an over-the-counter antiperspirant and deodorant.
- Antiperspirant. Antiperspirants contain aluminium-based compounds that temporarily block the sweat pore, thereby reducing the amount of perspiration that reaches your skin.
- Deodorant. Deodorants can eliminate odor but not perspiration. They're usually alcohol-based and turn your skin acidic, making it less attractive to bacteria. Deodorants often contain perfume fragrances intended to mask odor.
If over-the-counter antiperspirants don't help control your sweating, your doctor may prescribe aluminum chloride (Drysol, Xerac Ac). For best results, apply the antiperspirant at night to the areas most prone to sweating. Prescription antiperspirants are strong solutions that can cause red, swollen and itchy skin in some people. If irritation develops, wash the medication off in the morning.
You can do a number of things on your own to reduce sweating and body odor. The following suggestions may help:
- Bathe daily. Regular bathing, especially with an antibacterial detergent or soap, reduces the growth of bacteria on your skin.
- Choose clothing to suit your activity. For daily wear, choose natural fabrics, such as cotton, wool and silk, which allow your skin to breathe. For exercise wear, you might prefer manmade fabrics developed to wick moisture away from your skin.
- Apply antiperspirants nightly. At bedtime, apply antiperspirants to palms or soles of the feet. Try perfume-free antiperspirants.
- Try relaxation techniques. Consider relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation or biofeedback. These practices can teach you to control the stress that triggers perspiration.
- Change your diet. Caffeinated beverages and spicy or strong-smelling foods may make you sweat more or have stronger body odor than usual. Eliminating these foods may help.
Jan. 25, 2014
- Goldsmith LA, et al., eds. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine. 8th ed. New York, N.Y.: The McGraw-Hill Companies; 2012. http://www.accessmedicine.com/resourceTOC.aspx?resourceID=740. Accessed July 18, 2013.
- Kliegman RM, et al. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 19th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2011. http://clinicalkey.com. Accessed July 18, 2013.
- Smith CC, et al. Primary focal hyperhidrosis. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed July 18, 2013.
- Shirasu M, et al. The scent of disease: Volatile organic compounds of the human body related to disease and disorder. Journal of Biochemistry. 2011;150:257.