Whether you’ve just completed a workout or ate garlic shrimp pasta, chances are, at one time or another, you’ve been the stinky person in the room. In most cases, a simple shower, swipe of deodorant, or some toothpaste could fix the stink. But in other cases, it may not be so simple.
That’s because your body odor can be a health status indicator. In fact, some diseases can actually produce a unique, distinguished odor, according to a recent Swedish study.
So which funky fumes should you take note of? Here are some common body odors that might signal a more serious problem that only a doctor can help you fix.
Body odor #1: Stinky feet are a symptom of athlete’s foot
Can’t seem to fight funky feet? A fungal infection may be to blame. If you notice dry, scaly skin around your toes, redness, and blisters, you may have athlete’s foot, according to the American Podiatric Medical Association (APMA).
Plus, if you ignore athlete’s foot, the skin in between your toe webs becomes excessively soft and moist, making it an entry point for bacteria. You can develop more complicated conditions like cellulitis, a bacterial infection of your skin’s soft tissue.
So if you’re experiencing symptoms, try an over-the-counter antifungal spray like Lotrimin or Tinactin. If the problem continues to persist after two weeks, your doctor can take a closer look and prescribe a more targeted treatment.
Body odor #2: Fruity breath is a symptom of diabetes
A complication of diabetes is Diabetic Ketoacidosis (DKA), which occurs when your body runs low on insulin with high on blood sugar levels. Our body can’t create the energy it needs to function properly, so it begins to break down fatty acids for fuel. This creates a buildup of acidic chemicals called ketones in your blood. One of the main acids—acetone can leave a fruity smell on your breath. You might not notice it until someone else mentions it, but doctors can smell it on you as soon as you walk into a room.
The effects of DKA can be serious—even deadly. It can make you vomit and urinate frequently, causing your body to lose fluids at a dangerous rate. DKA generally occurs with other symptoms of diabetes, like fatigue, blurred vision, and unexplained weight loss, but in many cases, people don’t put them all together, which delays diagnosis and treatment. So if you notice the fruity odor on your breath along with any of those symptoms—especially if they are accompanied by fatigue, dry mouth, difficulty breathing, or abdominal pain, head to the emergency room as soon as possible.
Body odor #3: Smelly poop is a symptom of lactose intolerance
When your small intestine doesn’t produce enough of an enzyme called lactase, it can’t digest lactose, a sugar found in dairy products.
So your small intestine directs lactose directly to your colon—instead of your bloodstream—where your gut bacteria ferments it. This can cause loose, foul-smelling stool, bloating, and smelly gas.
Lactose intolerance is fairly common: In fact, an estimated 65% of people have trouble digesting dairy, according to the National Institutes of Health. But the reaction—including painful stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting, as well as smelly farts and bowel movements—can vary from person to person.
So if your gas or poop smells particularly pungent after you drink some milk or eat dairy products, you might want to check in with your doctor. He or she can diagnose the problem, or even rule out more concerning intestinal issues, like Crohn’s disease, as a culprit behind the stench. Then, your doctor can help you determine how much lactose you can take in per day without causing a problem.
Body odor #4: Strong smelling urine is a symptom of a urinary tract infection
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) can produce pungent, almost chemical-smelling urine. This happens after bacteria, most commonly E. coli, enters your urinary tract and urethra. Then, it multiplies in your bladder, causing an infection.
UTIs are more frequent in women than men because of their urethra—the channel that drains the bladder—is shorter. So men often ignore their smelly pee, since they figure they’re not at risk of one. However, when they do get infections it’s usually because there’s something not allowing their bladder to drain.
So for men, a UTI could be signaling a bigger problem, like kidney stones, diabetes, or an enlarged prostate gland, which can require surgery to treat. So if you notice your pee smells strong, check in with your doctor.
Body odor #5: Bad breath is a symptom of sleep apnea
If your morning breath is consistently ripe—even if you brush your teeth regularly—you could be dealing with undiagnosed sleep apnea, a disorder that causes your breathing to sporadically stop and start while you sleep. (See video below.)
Sleep apnea can lead to excessive snoring, causing you to breathe through your mouth throughout the night. This can make your mouth very dry, which is a common cause of bad breath. This allows bacteria to breed more readily—and when certain kinds multiply, they produce a sulfurous gas that can give your breath a rotten egg smell.
If you’ve ruled out other causes of bad breath, but still wake up with a smelly mouth and you suffer from daytime sleepiness and snoring, schedule an appointment with your doctor. It’s important that sleep apnea gets diagnosed quickly: The sleeping condition has been strongly associated with diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, so treating it sooner than later can spare you its long-term health effects.
Once you’re diagnosed, your sleep doctor can recommend a continuous positive airway pressure device (CPAP), a mask that rests over your nose and mouth that helps keep your airways open while you snooze.
Nurse Alice is a nationally board-certified and award-winning cardiac clinical nurse specialist with nearly two decades of experience in cardiovascular health. She is a community health activist and freelance media health expert. She has appeared on various national radio and TV shows including Dr. Oz, The Doctors, Dr. Drew, News One with Roland Martin, Tom Joyner Morning Show and more. She is also the author of “Curb Your Cravings: 31 Foods to Fool Your Appetite.”