Body odor in children is not uncommon as they also sweat like adults. Since they are more active, they may sweat more. A bad odor is produced when bacteria act upon one’s sweat (1). Therefore, it is not unusual to experience a little smell from their clothes and body. However, if you notice a continuously lingering peculiar body odor or they are suddenly sweating more than usual, you may consider seeing a pediatrician. Read this post to learn more about the causes for normal and abnormal body odor, home remedies, treatment, and some common myths regarding body odor in children.
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 regioniXThe area between the anus and the bulb of the penis in males and posterior part of the vagina in females 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 clothing.
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 glandsiXOil-secreting glands in hair follicles of the skin .
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 with poor body hygiene or who are physically active may also have body odor, which goes away by maintaining hygiene with regular bathing and practicing cleanliness.
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
- 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.
- 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)
According to Dr. Bidisha Sarkar, “Spicy foods, onions, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables such as cabbage and broccoli are some common culprits. These foods contain sulfur compounds that can be released through sweat, causing an unpleasant smell. To combat this, encourage your child to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean protein sources such as chicken and tofu, and whole grains like quinoa and brown rice. Drinking lots of water can also help flush toxins and prevent odor.”
- 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.
- 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 syndromeiXA hormonal disorder causing development of multiple cysts on the ovaries (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).
- 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).
- 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).
- Hyperhidrosis: Hyperhidrosis is the medical name for the condition that leads to excessive perspiration 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 hyperthyroidismiXOverproduction of thyroid hormone by the thyroid gland 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 sympathectomyiXA surgical procedure to treat excessive sweating with the help of a camera-like device called thoracoscope may be required (15).
- 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 your children wash their bodies, including the groin, armpits, and feet every day. Using scented soap and body wash can help.
- 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 laundry smell musty even after a wash. 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 such as sage and rosemary and increasing 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 bath water 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 or body sprays 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 such as anxiety, stress, and depression can also lead to excessive perspiration 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the differences between body odor in children and adults?
Children, in general, may sweat less than adults (23). Additionally, the composition of sweat during physical activity may vary between children and adults. A study shows higher amounts of lactate and ammonia in children’s sweat compared to adults after 20 minutes of physical activity. These factors may create differences between body odor in children and adults (24).
Is there a difference in body odor between boys and girls?
Men and women may have different body odors. A study shows a difference in the amounts of the chemicals (3-hydroxy-3-methylhexanoic acid and 3-methyl-3-sulfanylhexan-1-ol) between men and women. These two chemicals are made by the bacteria inhabiting the skin. A difference in hormones may determine the abundance of the bacteria responsible for producing each chemical. The former cheesy-smelling chemical is more abundant in male armpits, while the latter oniony-smelling component is dominant in females (25).
What are the long-term effects of body odor in children?
Body odor in pubertal children is less likely to have any long-term adverse effects. However, there may be long-term effects if an underlying health issue causing body odor in children remains untreated.
Body odor in children is quite common due to the bacterial buildup, especially in the joint areas such as armpits and underarms. It could easily lead to social anxiety in them. Even after trying several home remedies and maintaining proper hygiene, if the odor persists, it might be caused due to an underlying medical condition. In such situations, it is advised to consult your doctor. Therefore, it is essential that you teach your child clean habits and also about the role of hygiene in maintaining good health.
Infographic: How To Choose Deodorant For Children With Body Odors?
Deodorants can reduce body odor, and a few may also help reduce sweating based on the underlying problem. You may ask for a pediatrician’s suggestions to find a suitable solution for body odor. Go through the infographic to learn how to choose deodorants for children.
- Children tend to sweat more than adults as they engage in physical activities often.
- Body odor mainly occurs from the bacterial growth and decomposition of naturally secreted constituents of sweat.
- Certain medical conditions, such as hyperhidrosis, diabetes, and phenylketonuria may also lead to foul-smelling odor.
- Children may also develop strong body odor due to food habits, poor hygiene, and hormonal changes (at puberty).
- Measures including maintaining personal hygiene, drinking sufficient water, and avoiding certain foods could help manage the problem.
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