Sour body odor is partly dependent on the nose of the beholder, but there are certain thresholds no one wants to cross.
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An unpleasant aroma is usually due to sweat mingling with bacteria on our skin. The particular odor you emanate can be affected by any number of factors, including a medical condition — but more commonly it's something innocent, like a curry dinner.
There's no way to cure or completely prevent body odor that smells like vinegar or sour milk if that happens to be the scent you give off, says Louis Kuchnir, MD, PhD, a dermatologist in Massachusetts and member of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). But there are ways to manage it.
7 Causes of a Sour Body Odor
There are two main types of body odor (called bromhidrosis in medical circles), according to the Cleveland Clinic. The most common is apocrine bromhidrosis, which involves the sweat glands in the armpits and genital area. The other is eccrine bromhidrosis, referring to sweat glands that are located throughout the body.
Each can have multiple causes, including:
1. Poor Hygiene
This could mean you're not washing often enough, thoroughly enough or using enough soap when you suds up.
2. Certain Foods
- Garlic, onions and other spicy foods may speed up your body's metabolism, increasing perspiration, says Michele S. Green, MD, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
- Cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli and Brussels sprouts: "Consuming these vegetables may lead to an increase in available sulfur for skin bacteria, allowing the bacteria to make more sulfur-containing compounds that produce an odor on the skin," Dr. Green says.
- Red meat can sometimes cause a fishy odor.
- Alcohol, which your body converts to acetone (the ingredient in nail polish remover), can lead to a fruity smell, says Jason Meyer, MD, PhD, a dermatologist with Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. This often smells sweet but can also come across as sour depending on how it reacts with the bacteria on your skin and how you personally perceive smells.
3. Excessive Sweating
The official name for this is hyperhidrosis. When you sweat a lot, you may also notice more body odor. Excessive sweating can be due to genetics, the result of an underlying health condition or a side effect of some medications, according to DermNet NZ, including:
- Tricyclic antidepressants like amitriptyline (Elavil)
- Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as citalopram (Celexa)
- Diabetes medications, including insulin
- Thyroid meds
- Certain antibiotics, like ciprofloxacin
- Pain medications, including opioids (morphine, oxycodone) and NSAIDs (ibuprofen, naproxen)
- Antipsychotics, such as haloperidol and clozapine (Clozaril)
4. Skin Infections
Skin infections typically are accompanied by other symptoms, such as redness, inflammation or the presence of white, yellow or red substances on the skin, says Dr. Green. The skin may also be warm to the touch around the area of redness.
Examples of skin infections that can cause a sour body odor include:
- Trichomycosis axillaris, a bacterial infection of the hair follicles in the underarms
- Erythrasma, a bacterial infection more common in warm, humid climates that affects skin folds like the groin and between the toes
- Intertrigo, which also affects moisture-prone skin folds
- Pitted keratolysis, which causes itchy, smelly feet
5. Medical Conditions
- Diabetic ketoacidosis, when high blood sugar levels result in the production of ketones or acids, which causes body odor and fruity-smelling breath
- Advanced kidney or liver disease, which can cause an odor resembling ammonia, says Dr. Green
- Trimethylaminuria, a rare, sometimes genetic condition when your sweat, breath or saliva smell like fish or eggs, says AAD member Ronda Farah, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School
- Overactive thyroid
- Anxiety or stress
6. Changing Hormones
As hormones change during life phases such as puberty, menopause, pregnancy or the postpartum period, sweat glands may become more active, Dr. Kuchnir says. This can cause more body odor in general, and for some people, it may smell sour.
7. A Change to Your Nose
Sometimes your body odor isn't to blame if you're smelling a sour scent. Rather, it could be your nose. A foreign object stuck in your nose can affect your sense of smell, for example, as can infection with certain viruses, including the virus that causes COVID-19, according to NYU Langone Health.
At-Home Remedies for Sour Body Odor
In many cases, you can treat the reasons for a foul or sour body odor at home:
1. Pay Attention to Your Diet
"If you notice a pattern of increased body odor when consuming certain foods, you can eliminate [those foods] from your diet," says Dr. Green.
This is a trial-and-error process. Try removing one food for a few weeks to see if your smell changes. If it doesn't, add that food back into your diet and try removing a different food. Keep going in this way until you've discovered the culprit behind the BO.
It's worth noting that dietary elimination can be a tricky process and may leave you at risk for nutritional deficiencies, so consider working with a registered dietitian to help you navigate the process.
2. Eliminate or Reduce Alcohol Consumption
If you often drink alcohol or do so in large amounts, consider cutting back. This can help curb body odor but also sideline other negative effects of drinking.
3. Practice Good Hygiene
Some of your most potent allies are going to be on regular pharmacy shelves. "It's deodorant soaps and antiperspirants that kill bacteria," says Dr. Kuchnir. Shower regularly and suds up well.
4. Wear Breathable Clothes
Cotton is a good choice if you're concerned about sweating. And make sure to wash your clothes regularly.
5. Treat Your Armpits
To help control odor, apply a mixture of water and baking soda to your armpits daily and let it dry, per the Cleveland Clinic. You can also try soaking green tea bags in warm water and then applying them to your underarms for several minutes a day.
6. Remove Body Hair
Body parts with hair — especially underarms and the groin area — are a breeding ground for bacteria, which can mix with sweat to produce a sour body odor.
7. Apply Antiperspirant
Deodorant products are meant to mask smells, but antiperspirants block sweat, so it doesn't have the chance to mingle with your skin's bacteria and produce BO. (Just make sure you're applying antiperspirant correctly.)
Medical Treatments for Sour Body Odor
Some causes of unpleasant body odor require a doctor's intervention. The available medical treatments include:
- Prescription deodorants containing aluminum chloride can reduce how much sweat reaches the skin's surface, says Dr. Farah.
- Antibiotics and other medications may be used to treat skin infections.
- Injections of botulinum toxin (like Botox) under your arms can help inhibit sweating.
- Oral medications like glycopyrrolate (Robinul) are sometimes used to treat hyperhidrosis.
- MiraDry is a device that uses microwaves to destroy sweat glands. It's approved but, cautions Dr. Farah, "is very preliminary."
- Surgical removal of sweat glands is an effective but irreversible solution.
Keep in mind that each treatment also comes with the risk of side effects, so it's important to discuss the pros and cons thoroughly with your doctor before pursuing any of the methods above.
When to See a Doctor
Contact a medical professional if you experience a sudden change in odor or sweating, symptoms that don't go away or symptoms that are accompanied by other worrisome signs. "Sweating and odor that's not going away definitely needs to be checked by a doctor," says Dr. Farah.
Another time to consult a professional is if you have body odor even when you're bathing every day and using regular deodorant, adds Dr. Meyer.
You should also seek help if the problem is affecting your mood or self-esteem. "There's a lot of shame about smell," he adds. "Body odor is normal, but we have tools to combat it if you don't like it."
It's often normal for your sweat and your body to smell sour at least some of the time. If the odor comes on suddenly, persists or is accompanied by other symptoms like a rash, you should see a doctor. Also get help if the odor is affecting how you feel about yourself.
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.