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Body Odor In Children: Causes, Treatment And Tips To Manage

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Sweating in children is normal. So, in most cases, a little smell from their clothes and body when they have been physically active all day may not be a concern. Your sweat is generally odorless, and body odor is caused when bacteria act upon your sweat (1). But, if you notice a peculiar body odor that seems to be lingering around your child all day, or your child is sweating more than usual, then you may need a pediatrician’s consultation.

In this MomJunction post, we tell you about the possible causes of body odor in children, when it is a concern, and some home care tips to help your child to cope with body odor.

Sweat Glands And The Nature Of Sweat

To understand body odor, it is important to understand the anatomy of sweat. We have two types of sweat glands: eccrine sweat glands (clear, odorless, pH of 4.0–6.8, composed of 98–99% water but also containing sodium chloride, fatty acids, lactic acid, citric acid, ascorbic acid, urea, and uric acid), which are present throughout the body, and apocrine sweat glands (odorless, pH 6.0–7.5, containing water, proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and steroids), which are limited to the perianal region and the armpits.

The eccrine sweat glands release sweat when you have a fever, eat something spicy or when the temperature is high, and conditions are hot. The sweat secreted by these glands is water-based and maintains ideal body temperature.

The apocrine glands are sensitive to adrenaline. They can release sweat whenever you indulge in physical activity or experience any emotion like fear, anxiety, and stress, or when you are sexually stimulated. The sweat released by these glands is oily, opaque, and odorless. But it can create odor on interaction with bacteria on the skin or clothes.

Body odor in humans is believed to be primarily mediated by bacterial decomposition of naturally secreted, non-odorous constituents of sweat, especially fatty acids, branched-chain aliphatic amino acids, glycerol, and lactic acid originating from eccrine, apocrine, and sebaceous glands.

In children, sweat is usually produced by the eccrine glands. The apocrine glands become active only during puberty (2).

When Is Body Odor In Your Child Normal?

Children usually develop a strong body odor once they reach puberty, however, “it is not actually uncommon for younger kids to have armpit smells due to bacteria,” says pediatrician Dr. Cynthia L.Gellner, in her interview transcript for the University of Utah (3). If your child is old enough and shows other signs of puberty, the body odor could be one of the early signs of puberty.

Younger children who have poor body hygiene or who are physically active may also have body odor, which goes away with regular bathing and maintaining hygiene.

But, if your child develops body odor before the age of 7-9 years, is smelling strange, or has an excessive odor, then you could consider making an appointment with your child’s pediatrician, says Dr. Kathryn Schaus, a pediatrician at the Marshfield clinic (4).

As stated earlier, your child can have a normal body odor, which can be due to some lifestyle habits. First, we will tell you about the causes of normal body odor in children.

Causes For Normal Body Odor In Children

  1. Poor hygiene: Poor hygiene is one of the most common causes of body odor in children. Irregular bathing, not washing the armpits and groin region, and bacteria accumulated in the clothes can lead to bad odor.

If your children refuse to take a bath regularly, they might smell when the bacteria on the skin contacts sweat.

  1. Food habits: What you put into your body is what comes out. So, the food you eat has a direct correlation to body odor. The food that your children eat affects not only their breath but also their odor. They may start to emit bad odor after they eat smelly foods like garlic and onion. After these foods are digested, their smell seeps through the pores of the skin and generates odor.

Some of the foods that can produce bad odor in both children and adults are:

    • Red meat has an amino acid derivative called carnitine. Too much of carnitine can create a “fishy” body odor (5).
    • Milk contains a protein that can take longer to digest than other foods. So excess consumption of dairy products can lead to a release of methyl mercaptan and hydrogen sulphide in the body, causing a foul smell to emanate. The chances of body odor due to dairy may be higher if the child is lactose intolerant (6).
    • Processed foods made from flour, especially those that lack fiber (7).
    • Foods containing garlic and onion can cause changes in body odor (7).
    • Smelly foods like fish, eggs, and legumes (7)
  1. Puberty: Puberty is the phase where young girls and boys attain sexual maturity. Girls reach puberty between the ages of 8 to 13, while boys reach the stage two years later. During this time, children go through a lot of hormonal changes (adrenarche) that lead to variations in their body and behavior. One such key change that you will notice in a child going through puberty is body odor. So if your child falls within this age group, body odor is normal and should not be a cause for concern (8).

These are some of the reasons for normal body odor in children, which can be taken care of with better personal hygiene, and a healthy diet. If your child is reaching puberty, then sit them down and help them understand that this is a natural process and nothing to be embarrassed about.

Causes For Abnormal Body Odor In Children

Sometimes body odor could indicate an underlying disease. Here, we tell you about some conditions for which body odor could be a symptom.

  1. Premature adrenarche: In children, sexual development starts with the maturation of the adrenal gland, also known as adrenarche, which usually begins before the child hits puberty. Adrenarche is responsible for early signs of puberty, including pubic hair, and adult-like body odor (9).

But some children experience premature adrenarche (at the age of eight in girls and nine in boys), which could be associated with insulin resistance, increased chances of developing the metabolic syndrome (a condition which increases the risk of heart attack), or polycystic ovary syndrome (10).

So, if your child’s body odor is like that of an adult, and often requires deodorants, then look for other signs such as pubic hair, development of genital organs, and more than average height to determine if it is premature adrenarche.

Treatment: Though premature adrenarche doesn’t cause serious health issues in children, it is best to schedule an appointment with your child’s doctor as early detection can help your child to cope up with the changes in their body. Your pediatrician might prescribe medications to slow down the progression of puberty, which has no effect on the adrenal hormones made by the child’s body (11).

  1. Phenylketonuria: Phenylketonuria or PKU is a metabolic error that a child is born with. Children with this disorder do not have phenylalanine hydroxylase, an enzyme that is needed to break the essential amino acid called phenylalanine, which is essential for proper growth and development.

If PKU is not treated immediately, the child can develop intellectual disabilities. Untreated infants with PKU tend to develop a musty body odor caused due to the phenyl acetic acid in urine or sweat, along with other symptoms such as light eyes, skin, and hair color, poor feeding, abnormal muscle movements, tight muscles, involuntary movements or tremors (12).

Treatment: As children with PKU have a high concentration of phenylalanine in their body, the doctor might put them on PKU diet as soon as possible after birth, which could reduce brain damage to a certain extent. The infant would be given a special infant formula and be prescribed a special diet to avoid high-protein foods such as milk, cheese, nuts, soybeans, chicken, beef, pork, fish, and peas. In addition to this, your doctor might also recommend some supplements which can help your child’s growth (13).

  1. Fish Odor Syndrome Or Trimethylaminuria: Trimethylaminuria or TMAU is a rare condition that is caused due to the body’s failure to metabolize the chemical trimethylamine. This results in the accumulation of the chemical causing smelly urine, breath, and sweat. The odor caused due to TMAU is a pungent, ‘fish-like’ smell, which is why TMAU is also known as the fish odor syndrome (14).

Treatment: If the diagnosis reveals mild TMAU, your child’s doctor could put them on a diet restricting choline and lecithin. Gut sterilizing antibiotics may also be considered in some severe cases. If a genetic mutation is detected, then your doctor might prescribe supplements of riboflavin. The doctor may also prescribe the use of slightly acidic soaps and body lotions that can make the trimethylamine on the skin less volatile (14).

  1. Hyperhidrosis: Hyperhidrosis is the medical name for the condition that leads to excessive sweating in a person. If your child is sweating more than he generally does to maintain normal body temperature, they may have primary hyperhidrosis, which could be genetic. This affects only certain parts of the body, such as palms, armpits, and feet, and might start during childhood, whereas secondary hyperhidrosis can occur as a result of underlying conditions such as hyperthyroidism and hypertension.

Children with primary hyperhidrosis sweat excessively and constantly in certain areas, irrespective of the environmental temperature and emotional state. This worsens in warm climates and when under stress (15).

Treatment: The treatment options vary from surgical to non-surgical. Your child’s doctor is the best person to determine what’s best based on how the condition is and how it affects the child. Non-surgical treatment methods include topical antiperspirant agents and oral medications that block the sweat glands. In some cases, a surgical procedure called thoracoscopic sympathectomy may be required (15).

  1. Underlying Medical Conditions: If your child has a distinct body odor, it could sometimes be due to an underlying medical condition like diabetes, kidney or liver problems, or inflammation (16).

Disease gives the body a distinct smell, which enables medical professionals to identify the condition quickly and easily to start the necessary treatment.

Abnormal body odor could be an important sign of an underlying condition, so it is advised that you consult with your pediatrician if you notice any of the above-mentioned changes along too in your children.

Next, we will give you some general home care tips that can help you teach your child proper personal hygiene and cope with body odor.

Tips To Manage Body Odor In Children

Body odor in children can be managed to a certain extent. In addition to the treatment prescribed by the doctor, these tips could help your child cope with the condition.

  • Maintaining personal hygiene tops the list of things you can do to manage body odor. If your child is aged eight or less, teach them about hygiene and help them be clean. If you have a preteen, talk to him about the importance of hygiene.
  • Make sure your child wears clean clothes every day. Discourage them from wearing the same trousers, jeans, or a skirt for more than a day.
  • Check if their clothes are clean and smell fresh. Sometimes, wet weather and moisture can make clothes smell musty even after they are washed. Dry the clothes under the sun and use a fabric conditioner to make clothes smell fresh.
  • Ensure that the child’s clothes and shoes are completely dry before they wear them.
  • Drinking plenty of water helps in eliminating toxins in the body and reduces the chances of body odor.
  • If your children drink cow milk, replace it with organic, soy, or almond milk. That can help at times, however, consult with your pediatrician before doing so.
  • Avoiding certain foods that cause body odor usually solves the problem.
  • Including aromatic herbs like sage and rosemary and increase the intake of green leafy vegetables. The chlorophyll in plants is a natural body cleanser.

If home care doesn’t help manage your child with body odor, then you can try out some of these well-known home remedies to manage body odor.

Home Remedies For Body Odor In Children

Some home remedies have been in use for mild and normal body odor. However, it should be noted that there is little scientific evidence to back the effectiveness of these home remedies. Also, it is advised to talk to your doctor before using them on your children.

It should also be remembered that these remedies might only help in managing body odor and do not treat the underlying condition that is causing the odor.

  • It is believed that adding a few spoons of lemon juice to the child’s bathwater can keep the body dry, thereby preventing the growth of bacteria. You may try this if you think it would work for your child.
  • Alternatively, Some suggest diluting a spoonful of lemon juice with a cup of water and dabbing the child’s armpits with a cotton ball soaked in that liquid. Leave it for ten minutes and then wash it off with water. Do this once a day and see if it could reduce the intensity of body odor.
  • Anecdotal evidence suggests that adding two cups of tomato juice into your child’s bathtub and letting them soak in it for a few minutes can also help. You can also use the water for bathing.
  • Another popular home remedy is apple cider vinegar. Dab a cotton ball soaked in apple cider vinegar on the armpits and other parts of the body a few minutes before giving your child a bath. However, talk to your doctor before trying this with the child.
  • Rosemary is said to have antifungal and antimicrobial properties and might help in getting rid of the bacteria on your child’s skin (17) You may consider boiling rosemary leaves in a cup of water and add that to your child’s bathwater. Let the child soak in the tub for at least 15 minutes, and then pat them dry. You can also add rosemary oil to the bathwater.
  • Sage contains ursolic and carnosic acids, which have antibacterial effects on the armpit bacteria (18). Hence, you can consider boiling a cup of dried sage leaves in water and adding that to your child’s bathwater. Or, you can create a natural deodorant by mixing sage oil, coriander oil, and lavender essential oil and let them use it every day.

Abnormal body odor in children can be worrisome and give rise to several fears, making the parents believe certain myths surrounding it.

Misconceptions About Body Odor In Children

There are many misconceptions about body odor. It is important to get your facts right to find the actual cause and get a permanent solution.

1. Deodorants can beat body odor in children

Deodorants can mask body odor caused due to hygiene issues and puberty. But if the body odor is caused due to other medical conditions, a deodorant will not help. Also, a study demonstrated that the use of antiperspirants early on could alter the armpit bacteria and make them species rich, although the effect of this on human health needs to be researched further (19).

2. You can eliminate body odor by showering daily

Some people bathe more than twice a day but still cannot get rid of the distinct smell emanating from their bodies. This is because body odor is not always caused due to poor hygiene. You cannot “wash away” the body odor caused due to an underlying condition that needs to be treated with medication.

3. Body odor is a physical problem

Body odor is not always a result of a physical condition. Genetics or mental conditions like anxiety, stress, and depression can also lead to excessive sweating and cause body odor.

Body odor in children is usually a sign that they are growing up. But if personal hygiene tips and home remedies to keep odor at bay are not working, it is time to visit a doctor.

Bad body odor can take a toll on your child’s social life, and they could also develop an inferiority complex. So, as a parent, you need to observe your children carefully and educate them that this is temporary or can be managed. You also need to educate your child’s caretakers and friends to make them better understand their condition.

Do you have any tips to maintain a child’s hygiene and avoid body odor? Tell us in the comments section.

References:

1. Sweating and Body Odor; Cleveland Clinic
2. Bonnie D. Hodge; Robert T. Brodell; Anatomy, Skin Sweat Glands; NCBI
3. Interview Transcript; Health; University of Utah
4. What’s that smell? Body odor means puberty is starting; Shine365; Marshfield Clinic
5. Jan Havlicek, Pavlina Lenochova; The Effect of Meat Consumption on Body Odor Attractiveness; Chemical senses
6. Hormones in milk can be dangerous; The Harvard Gazette
7. Jan Havlicek and Tamsin Saxton; The Effect Of Diet On Human Bodily Odors; Semantic scholar
8. Helping Your Child Through Early Adolescence; US Department of Education
9. Cutler GB Jr, Loriaux DL; Andrenarche and its relationship to the onset of puberty; NCBI
10. Sharon E. Oberfield, Aviva B. Sopher, and Adrienne T. Gerken; Approach to the Girl with Early Onset of Pubic Hair; NCBI
11. Premature Adrenarche: A Guide for families; American Academy of Pediatrics, and Pediatric Endocrine Society
12. Phenylketonuria; National Organization for Rare Disorders
13. What are common treatments for phenylketonuria (PKU)?; The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development
14. Trimethylaminuria; National Organization for Rare Disorders
15. Hyperhidrosis; Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
16. Sweating and Body Odor: Possible Causes; Cleveland Clinics
17. Jonan M Andrade, et al.; Rosmarinus officinalis L.: an update review of its phytochemistry and biological activity; NCBI
18. Mohammad Ali Shahtalebi, et al.; Deodorant effects of a sage extract stick: Antibacterial activity and sensory evaluation of axillary deodorancy; NCBI
19. J Urban et al.; The effect of habitual and experimental antiperspirant and deodorant product use on the armpit microbiome; PeerJ

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