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14 Body Odors You Should Never Ignore

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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Closeup of a beautiful young woman showing her smooth armpit isolated on white background. Girl holding her arms up and showing clean underarms.Boszyy Artist/Shutterstock

Foul body odor

If a shower can’t cut the odor being emitted from your pits, 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 and sugar and processed foods, it can deplete magnesium levels. If you’re not smelling so fresh and have other symptoms like muscle cramping, twitching or numbness, and tingling, ask your doc about a simple blood test to check your magnesium levels. Read more about what your body odor is really trying to tell you.

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More BO

If you have a digestive disorder such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis, you could be short on zinc. This mineral helps your body manage waste and toxins, says Dr. Segal; when a digestive order is present, the body may not absorb zinc 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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Rotten-egg breath

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; antibiotics can wipe it out. Learn about more sneaky reasons you might smell worse than normal.

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Rotten-apple breath

“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. Check what your sweat could be saying about your health.

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A smelly nose

Since it’s (hopefully) been several years since you stuck a pea or LEGO up your nose, there’s probably another reason your nose smells foul. “The reason it smells is because of the close proximity and interconnectedness of our oral cavity to the sinuses and throat,” says Kathleen R. McDonald, MD, with Houston Ear, Nose, Throat & Allergy Clinic. “Nasal odor occurs for a variety of health conditions, like postnasal drip, tonsil stones, a decaying tooth, sinus infections, and nasal polyps.” Time to call the doc and have a chat about all your symptoms to find the culprit.

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Pungent ears

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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Feet that reek

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. Try these home remedies to stomp out foot odors.

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Yucky morning breath

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 [a dangerous sleep disorder]. 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 and you snore viciously—and especially if you feel exhausted all the time—you should talk to your doctor about doing a sleep study.

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Stinkier poop than usual

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. Check out these weird pooping habits and their scientific explanations.

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The smell of rotting fish

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. Read which other foods could secretly be giving you body odor.

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Musty breath

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. It’s important to see your doctor soon: 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. Check out these tips for getting rid of garlic breath.

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It smells a little fishy “down there”

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, or after having a lot of sex or 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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Breath that kind of smells like pee

“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. Check out these diseases doctors can detect by smell.

Close-up of female with open mouth during oral checkup at the dentistMintybear/Shutterstock

Constant bad breath

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. And be sure to avoid these surprising foods that can give you seriously bad breath.

Medically reviewed by Tia Jackson-Bey, MD, on September 25, 2019

Lisa Marie Conklin
Lisa Marie Conklin is a Baltimore-based writer and writes regularly about pets and home improvement for Reader's Digest. Her work has also been published in The Healthy, HealthiNation, The Family Handyman, Taste of Home, and, among others. She's also a certified personal trainer and walking coach for a local senior center.