We depend on deodorant to keep our sweatiness and stink in check. So, when your deodorant fails you, and your armpits can't pass the sniff test, well, that's the pits.
If you've ever battled BO even after you've applied antiperspirant or deodorant, you might be scratching your head wondering, why do I still stink? While pungent pits are usually not a cause for concern, there are some health conditions that may contribute to bad body odor.
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But don't sweat it; we got you covered. Here, we spoke to Y. Claire Chang, MD, a board-certified dermatologist at Union Square Laser Dermatology, to get the scoop on stinky armpits (including why you may smell rank even after a swipe of deodorant and how to stop the stank in its tracks).
First Things First, Why Do Armpits Smell?
A strong stank usually happens when you sweat.
"Our body is made up of both eccrine and apocrine sweat glands: Eccrine glands are present all over the body, while apocrine glands are present in some hair-bearing areas, including the armpits and groin," Dr. Chang says.
When you're hot (or feeling nervous), your apocrine glands generate a thick, milky fluid (in the form of sweat). But, contrary to popular belief, sweat itself isn't stinky when it's first secreted, Dr. Chang says. It only starts to turn rank once it encounters bacteria on your skin's surface, which break it down, producing a strong odor, she explains.
If you have a sudden increase in sweating, change in body odor or body odor that smells fruity or bleach-like, see a doctor immediately, as these can all be signs of a serious medical issue, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
1. Your Hormones Are Changing
Your smelly pits could be a product of hormonal changes.
For example, during menopause, your estrogen levels decrease, which can trigger symptoms like hot flashes and heavy sweating, according to the National Institute on Aging (NIA).
Puberty is another hormonal period when your armpits may produce more unpleasant smells. "The apocrine sweat glands become larger and active during puberty under the stimulation of sex hormones, at which time body odor can worsen," Dr. Chang says.
Fix it: Fortunately, hormonal fluctuations are usually temporary, so your smelly pits should subside once your hormones settle.
In the meantime, if over-the-counter products don't keep your body odor in check, see your doctor, who can prescribe a prescription-strength antiperspirant/deodorant, Dr. Chang says.
2. You’re Taking Certain Medications
Your medicine may be the reason for your reeking armpits.
"Increased sweating and resulting armpit odor can be a side effect of some medications, including antidepressants (like bupropion, clomipramine, fluoxetine and sertraline), penicillin, bromides and dupilumab," Dr. Chang says.
Some common brand names for these meds include:
Fix it: If you notice a change in your body odor since you've been taking a certain medication, talk to your doctor, who may be able to prescribe you a different drug (but don't stop taking a prescription medication unless your doctor gives the OK).
3. You Have Intertrigo
Intertrigo can be instigating your putrid pits.
"Intertrigo is a common inflammatory skin condition that occurs in body creases, including the armpits and groin," Dr. Chang says. "Trapped moisture, heat and friction leads to skin inflammation, redness and sometimes a foul odor."
The warmth and moisture of your armpit area is an ideal environment for foul-smelling bacteria and fungi to grow, Dr. Chang explains.
Fix it: If you have an armpit rash along with bad body odor, you may be dealing with intertrigo and should be evaluated by a doctor, Dr. Chang says. Sometimes, intertrigo can lead to a bacterial or fungal infection, so you might need a prescription medication to resolve the issue.
Bacterial infections can be related to conditions other than intertrigo. For example, Trichomycosis axillaris results from an overproliferation of Corynebacterium and may include these symptoms:
- Yellow discharge or secretions on armpit hairs
- Discoloration of sweat, such as a reddish tint, which can stain clothing
- Malodorous scent
4. You Have Hyperhidrosis
Hyperhidrosis, a condition characterized by excessive sweating, could be the source of your smelliness. Once again, while sweat itself isn't stinky, a stench may surface when the bacteria on your skin break it down. To be precise, the stink actually comes from the waste products generated by the bacteria, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
So, if you sweat a lot, there will be more "food" for bacteria to feed on and more stinky byproducts.
Sometimes there's an underlying health issue causing hyperhidrosis. Medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, gout, overactive thyroid and pituitary gland disorders (among others) are associated with excessive sweating, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Fix it: Dr. Chang advises, "If your sweating is abnormally excessive or not controlled with over-the-counter antiperspirants, you may want to see a doctor for evaluation and treatment."
When hyperhidrosis is related to a medical issue, the best course of action is to identify and treat the underlying cause, she says.
Other treatments for excessive sweating include antiperspirants, botulinum toxin injections (i.e., Botox), topical medications and, in severe cases, surgery to block (or remove) your sweat glands, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
5. You Have Another Underlying Medical Condition
Other serious health problems can also produce bad body odor. Bromhidrosis (the medical term referring to excessive body odor) can result from many medical conditions, including infections and metabolic disorders, Dr. Chang says.
Indeed, certain rare genetic metabolic disorders, such as trimethylaminuria and phenylketonuria, may cause smelly armpits, Dr. Chang says. For example, people with trimethylaminuria are unable to break down trimethylamine (a chemical found in certain foods), and this causes their body to generate a rotten, fishy odor when they sweat, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI).
Fix it: In these cases, treating the underlying disease is the first step in stopping the smelliness.
Reducing sweating through antiperspirants, botulinum toxin or noninvasive energy procedures (like using electromagnetic waves to destroy sweat glands) may also help with conditions that produce putrid-smelling perspiration like trimethylaminuria, Dr. Chang says.
What's more, people with trimethylaminuria can shrink the stink effect by limiting or avoiding foods containing trimethylamine as well as ones with choline, lecithin and trimethylamine N-oxide (which are the precursors of trimethylamine), per NHGRI.
6. You Ate Stink-Inducing Foods
While we usually associate stinky foods (like garlic and onion) with bad breath, believe it or not, offensive body odor may also be linked to your diet.
Yep, certain foods can generate a foul-smelling funk in your armpit area. Again, garlic and onions are common offenders because your body releases stinky sulfurous compounds when it breaks down these aromatic alliums, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Similarly, gas-producing cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower can be the culprit behind the pungent smell pouring from your pores, per Harvard Health Publishing.
In addition, curry, asparagus and alcohol may cause armpit odor as well, Dr. Chang says.
Fix it: Luckily, there's a simple solution: If you notice a certain food is producing unpleasant pit odor, simply avoid or limit it in your diet.
More Tips to Keep Body Odor at Bay
To prevent your pits from getting stinky (or to slash the smell) try these additional strategies recommended by Harvard Health Publishing:
- Bathe regularly with an antibacterial soap to remove BO-inducing bacteria from your skin. Benzoyl peroxide can also serve as an antibacterial (apply this with caution, as it can cause irritation).
- Use a product that combines an antiperspirant (to prevent sweating) and a deodorant (to mask body odor with fragrance and to kill bacteria). This way, you have all your bases covered.
- Wear breathable fabrics (think: cotton, silk or wool) and moisture-wicking fabrics (like polyester or nylon) when you work out. And always wash clothes after each wear.
- Try shaving your armpit hair to help sweat evaporate more quickly (i.e., before it can emit any odor).
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.