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Body odor, from head to toes, can alert doctors to potential health issues—even cancer. Find out what those distinctive smells may signal.
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If a shower can’t help your body odor, it could be a sign of a magnesium deficiency. “The mineral magnesium helps in ‘deodorizing’ our internal organs and also helps with our body odor,” says cardiologist Robert Segal, MD, co-founder of LabFinder.
When we consume too much caffeine, sugar or processed foods, it can deplete magnesium levels. If you’re not smelling so fresh and have other symptoms such muscle cramping, twitching or numbness, and tingling, ask your doctor about a simple blood test to check your magnesium levels.
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If you have a digestive disorder such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you could be short on zinc. Zinc helps your body manage waste and toxins, says Dr. Segal; when a digestive diorder is present, the body may not absorb the mineral as it should. Too little zinc—you might stink. A blood or urine sample can test levels, but zinc has a pretty low presence in the body to begin with. Since it’s related to a digestive order, talk to your doctor about how to manage the odor.
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If a floss, brush, or piece of minty gum can’t cut the odor, you may have a bacterial infection, Dr. Segal warns. A common bacteria called H. pylori that can take up residence in your digestive system could be to blame. For some, the bacteria doesn’t cause any noticeable symptoms; for others, it can lead to GERD, celiac disease, stomach ulcers, and even gastric cancer. Your doctor can test you for the bug, and antibiotics can help wipe it out.
“When we don’t have enough insulin in our body, our liver then creates the chemical ketones, which are our body’s way to compensate for the lack of insulin,” says Dr. Segal. Rotten-apple breath is related to unbalanced insulin-dependent diabetes, according to research published in the Journal of International Society of Preventative and Community Dentistry. This is a clear sign that you should check in with your doctor. If you have already been diagnosed with diabetes, you may need to talk to your doctor about ways to better control your blood sugar.
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You know your nose smells, but did you know it can smell? Kathleen R. McDonald, MD, with Houston Ear, Nose, Throat & Allergy Clinic, explains that’s because of the close proximity and interconnectedness of our oral cavity to the sinuses and throat. “Nasal odor occurs for a variety of health conditions, like postnasal drip, tonsil stones, a decaying tooth, sinus infections, and nasal polyps.”
Yep, your ear wax can turn foul. “If you have really smelly and off-putting ear wax, most likely you’re suffering from an infection of some kind, and that’s what’s leading to the pungent aroma,” says Dr. McDonald. “Another example of this is when you have ingrown hairs or a sebaceous cyst, and when that irritation or infection ruptures, the by-product within is almost always foul-smelling,” Ring up your primary-care physician to identify and treat the odor.
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Maybe it’s not the shoes’ fault your feet stink: According to the American Podiatric Medical Association, excessive sweating of the feet—all-day, every day, summer and winter—could be a rare condition called hyperhidrosis. For some, the sweating is so intense that their feet are actually sliding around inside their shoes. If your feet are always sweating and one pair of socks can’t get you through the day, check with a podiatrist to get help in managing the symptoms.
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If you practice good oral hygiene, you shouldn’t be waking up with sewer breath. “In many cases, we see that people who are mouth breathers (due to nasal congestion) are actually people with undiagnosed sleep apnea. In addition, it gives them bad breath due to very dry mouth,” says Michael J. Breus, PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep disorders. So if you have bad morning breath, you snore, and feel exhausted all the time—you should talk to your doctor about doing a sleep study.
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Yeah, poop is never going to smell good. But if you persistently have loose stools, high-volume diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, or especially stinky poop, it deserves a checkup. According to Daniel Freedberg, MD, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Columbia University Medical Center, your diet can change your stool’s odor from day to day, but some people with lactose intolerance or C. difficile, a colonic infection, tend to have stools that are stinkier than usual.
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Trimethylaminuria is a big word for “fish odor syndrome.” In this rare genetic disorder, an enzyme in the body (called FMO3) fails to do its job of breaking down trimethylamine, a chemical found in foods like milk, eggs, beans, and organ meats, according to the National Institutes of Health. This chemical compound has a pungent, sulfurous odor that can smell like rotting fish or eggs; at higher levels, you may get whiffs of urine or trash left in the sun. While there’s no cure, you can minimize trouble by avoiding foods with trimethylamine.
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Breath that smells musty or similar to garlic and rotten eggs is annoying on its own; it’s very concerning if you haven’t actually been eating garlic or eggs. Marc S. Rabinowitz, MD, of Prevention First Healthcare says that if the liver starts failing at its job of detoxifying the blood—this can happen with cirrhosis, for example—your breath can go sour. A study in the Journal of Chromatography B reveals that cirrhosis of the liver can be virtually symptom-free; bad breath may be your best and earliest warning sign.
A fishy odor, along with increased vaginal discharge, is the trademark of an infection called bacterial vaginosis, says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN and author of She-ology. All women have bacteria that normally hang out in the vagina, but sometimes the natural balance gets thrown out of whack. Most commonly, this can happen during your period, from douching, after having a lot of sex, or after having sex with a new partner. It’s important not to rush to the drugstore to get rid of the odors with over-the-counter treatments without calling your gynecologist first, she says, adding this usually needs a prescription of antibiotics to treat the infection and the fishy odors.
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“A person with kidney failure may have breath that smells like ammonia or urine,” says Dr. Rabinowitz. That’s because your kidneys are failing to filter waste products from your body. Kidney failure comes on slowly: If you also have muscle cramps or swelling in your feet and ankles, or if your bathroom habits have changed, get checked out in a hurry.
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If friends and coworkers seem extra generous sharing their mints with you, they may be signaling that you have perpetually sour breath. You could have some issues with your gums. “Odors in the mouth are by-products of bacteria, plaque, and hard deposits known as calculus (tartar) that are left behind on teeth,” says Scott Eisen, DDS, of Catonsville Dental Care. When you skip dental cleanings and get lazy about flossing and brushing, plaque builds up around the teeth and begins to infect the gums, leading to periodontal disease. The gums then begin to pull away from the teeth, causing deep pockets where food gets trapped—and that will stink up your mouth in no time (not to mention risk the loss of your teeth). See your dentist soon.
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