5 Causes of Garlic Breath or Body Odor

Sweat or skin that smells like garlic could be caused by sulfur-producing bacteria.
Image Credit: Robert Daly/OJO Images/GettyImages

There's nothing like a strong garlic smell wafting from the kitchen to set your mouth watering. But when your sweat or skin smells like garlic? Well, that's a different story.

Sweat itself is odorless, according to the Mayo Clinic. Unpleasant body odor generally arises when sweat and body oils interact with bacteria or sulfur compounds on the skin. A garlic body odor may occur as a side effect of certain drugs and supplements. Rarely, it may signal an underlying medical condition.

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Here's what might be causing you to smell like garlic, and what you can do about it.

Tip

Talk to your doctor if you sweat excessively or suddenly develop an intense form of body odor. A few tests can determine the cause of the problem, and a prescription deodorant may help.

1. Alliums in Your Diet

Foods in the onion (allium) family, including onion, leek, garlic and chive, contain pungent sulfur compounds that permeate through the skin's pores.

According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, side effects of eating garlic or taking garlic supplements including breath and body odor, and the smell is usually more noticeable if you've eaten raw garlic. Handling a lot of alliums (such as during cooking) can also make your hands and fingers smell like garlic for a day or so afterward.

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Fix it:​ If the garlic smell is due to something you've eaten, the odor should clear up on its own in a few days. If it's from a supplement you're taking, consider stopping it or switching to a different kind.

2. Spices Like Cumin or Curry

It may not be surprising that eating garlic can make you smell like the veg, but if you haven't eaten any lately (or any more than usual), you might want to check your spice cabinet.

Curry and cumin are both broken down into sulfur-like compounds by your body, according to The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, which mix with the sweat on your skin, and voila: garlic smell.

Fix it:​ After eating a lot of these spices, it may take a few days for the odor to completely disappear. If it hasn't gone away in three to four days, check in with your doctor. And to prevent the stench going forward, you don't have to avoid these spices completely — just try eating them in smaller doses.

3. Certain Medications and Supplements

Certain sulfur-based medications, including dimethyl sulfoxide (used to treat some bladder conditions), can cause body odor and bad breath similar to garlic, according to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). This side effect may last for up to 72 hours.

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Too much selenium can also make your breath or body odor smell like garlic, according to MSKCC. It's one of the symptoms of chronic selenosis, which can happen when you're getting more 1,000 micrograms of the nutrient per day (likely through supplements). Other symptoms include muscle weakness, fatigue, irritability and red, irritated skin.

Fix it:​ If your medication is behind your garlic breath and it's troubling you, talk to your doctor about other options.

4. Emotional Stress

Stress-induced sweat is different from the sweat you produce when you're hot or working out.

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Anxiety or emotional stress trigger your body to produce an oily sweat, according to the Mayo Clinic, which can mix with sulfur-producing bacteria on your skin to make your armpits smell like garlic.

Fix it:​ The International Hyperhidrosis Foundation recommends doing the following to control stinky body odor:

  • Wash your underarms with an antibacterial soap.
  • Remove body hair from areas that are producing the BO, as hair can make odor worse.
  • Use antiperspirant to cut down on sweating (and consider applying it at night to make it more effective).
  • Ask your doctor or dermatologist about prescription-strength antiperspirants or Botox injections to manage excessive sweating.

5. Liver Disease

Rarely, having garlic breath when you haven't eaten garlic could be a sign of serious liver disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Liver disease doesn't always cause symptoms, per the Mayo Clinic, but when it does, they might include:

  • Yellowish skin and eyes
  • Abdominal pain
  • Swelling in the abdomen, legs or ankles
  • Itchy skin
  • Dark-colored urine and/or pale-colored stools
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • More likely to bruise easily

Fix it:​ If you have any of the above symptoms or think you may have a problem with your liver, make an appointment with your doctor right away.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.
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