What It’s Like to Live With Chronic Body Odor

‘I felt bad, they thought I was going in there without bathing or brushing my teeth, but the truth was I had this odor I could not get rid of.’

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Our bodies are adept at stench creation, a harsh reality that most of us can fortunately keep under control with showers and deodorant. Nevertheless, there are a number of unlucky people who — despite showering often and investing in powerful deodorants — are steadily trailed by a malodorous cloud.

Take this young man, who desperately posted to Reddit about his chronic funk, even though he showers twice a day and uses a strong antiperspirant [sic throughout]:

“I’ve noticed that when I’m on public transport or in class people try to move away from me or start coughing or just become restless. People, due to politeness, even try to drop hints at me to let me know I smell bad. Like, they’ll say this drink smells bad or ask the teacher if someone can open the windows because it’s too hot even though it’s freaking freezing. And I don’t want anyone saying it’s all in my head because I know it’s not.”

He describes his comprehensive hygiene routine, then emphasizes that his constant odor has left him feeling both helpless and alone: 

“It would make sense if I at least only smelt mildly but it’s like people can’t handle being around me and it’s physically difficult to them. I really want help. What am I missing? I really want help since it’s even effecting my social life and I can’t make friends because of it and it’s really embarrassing being 21 and having this issue. And I’m actually likable and sociable but people don’t want to be with me outside of class because of this.”

Chronic body odor can cause problems at work, too. In Indiana, an employee filed a lawsuit last year after she was fired: As reported by IndyStar, she had received complaints about a colleague with chronic body odor, and (disrespectfully) attempted to remedy the situation by hanging a bunch of air fresheners throughout the office. Needless to say, the smelly employee complained to HR, and the colleague was fired for creating a hostile work environment (depending on the case, chronic body odor is protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act).

The real trouble with chronic body odor is that there are all kinds of causes. An assortment of common infections and diseases, including diabetes, can contribute to the creation of unpleasant bodily smells. Similarly, those with hyperhidrosis, or excessive sweating, are prone to producing more odor than others, for obvious reasons.

There are also some more specific odor-inducing ailments, like bromhidrosis and trimethylaminuria. Bromhidrosis is caused by overactive apocrine glands, which produce a particularly smelly form of sweat, and while most common during and right after puberty, problems can persist for longer periods of time. The treatments for bromhidrosis are similar to those for hyperhidrosis, ranging from prescribed deodorants to Botox, which blocks the sweat glands altogether.

Trimethylaminuria, meanwhile, is a rare metabolic disorder that prevents the body from breaking down certain nitrogen-containing compounds — namely, trimethylamine. This is bad news for smelling good, because trimethylamine smells like fish and is produced in the intestines when all kinds of foods (eggs, legumes, fish and some vegetables) are digested. So when your body is unable to break trimethylamine down, it accumulates and is released in your sweat, urine, reproductive fluids and breath. In other words, people with trimethylaminuria are prone to smelling like fish, which is rarely considered a desirable scent.

This can obviously be debilitating, a fact that a woman who has trimethylaminuria shared with New York Magazine in 2014:

“My friends would drop similar hints or avoid getting close to me. When we were having a conversation they’d get this glazed-over look, or they would back off or put their hand over their mouth. Then I noticed, when I was out shopping, store assistants would say rude things very loudly because they wanted to let me know I had a problem. Things like, ‘Oh, here comes that woman! Don’t let her come down my line.’ I’d hear words like monkey or skunk as I walked past with my cart. I just said I was so sorry, I felt bad, they thought I was going in there without bathing or brushing my teeth, but the truth was I had this odor I could not get rid of.”

Another person suffering from trimethylaminuria shares her unfortunate circumstances on Reddit [sic throughout]:

“The kind of life I have lived is: Cant hold a job, Family and strangers have heartlessly bullied me many times, I have isolated myself to avoid bullying, I can’t support myself, My family never calls, texts, or emails, My parents think I cant hold a job because I dont want one (which isnt true), and in general No one is empathetic with my situation!”

What makes trimethylaminuria even more difficult than some other odor-causing ailments is that a cure has yet to be found, which means those who have it are simply told they should stop eating the many, many foods that contain trimethylamine. That said, the Monell Chemical Senses Center released some research regarding this peculiar ailment two years ago, and researchers suggested they would continue searching for a cure.

Until then, though, before you go visibly plugging your nose and telling people they need a shower, consider that they may have already washed more times that day than you will that week.