When Body Odor Is a Sign of Illness

Our scent can seem to say a lot about us, from what we’ve eaten to how often we bathe. But how we smell can also be indicative of how healthy we are. In some cases, body odor can even be a sign that something’s gone terribly wrong.

Body odor can be a warning sign of serious disease. But how can we tell? Changes in the way we normally smell, as well as the scent of our breath and urine, can indicate a number of health issues. In some cases, certain odors may be a sign of anything from diabetes and liver disease to bladder infections and even tuberculosis. We've compiled the details on the ways body odor can be a sign of illness and why it’s so important to pay attention to our own body scents.

What Causes Body Odor?

We notice most body odor when it’s on the skin or coming from the breath, but odors can also occur in urine and vaginal secretions. In most cases, what we smell is the result of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or microscopic particles our cells release as a normal part of their functioning. The bacteria that live in and on us also produce VOCs of their own and contribute to a person’s unique body odor.

A change in odor occurs when something shifts the types of bacteria we’re housing or changes the way our cells are metabolizing energy. Either can lead to new or different types of VOCs coming from the body. Certain VOCs occur with specific health conditions, making it possible to pinpoint some issues by odor.


Bad breath can be a sign of numerous problems. People with diabetes can give off a fruity aroma when their blood sugar is out of control, for example. A person suffering from kidney failure may have breath that smells like urine due to toxic waste build-up. Sufferers of liver disease are often described as having exceptionally rotten breath. Tuberculosis, pneumonia and scarlet fever can also make the breath noticeably foul.

The VOCs we emit when we breathe may help to detect autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, and they might even alert us to certain types of cancer. Researchers are looking into diagnostic tests that react to disease-specific VOCs, which may allow doctors to detect certain conditions by analyzing the breath alone.


It's not just movie magic and superstition that says we can smell illness on someone. We may not be able to identify all the different smells associated with illness, but we do often use smell as a gauge for wellness, even unconsciously.

We can suspect tuberculosis or infected lymph nodes if someone smells like stale beer. Or a metabolic disorder if someone smells like maple syrup or rotting fish. A National Geographic article highlights a woman who connected a “woody, musky odor” to her husband’s Parkinson’s disease.


Changes to the smell of the urine can also be a sign of something wrong. A bad smell can indicate a bladder infection or even liver failure. Some metabolic disorders can cause urine to smell like cabbage, hops or even rotten eggs.

Urine odor may also indicate a vaginal infection, or less commonly, cervical cancer. Infections also typically cause inflammation or itching, whereas cancer may lead to irregular bleeding and pain — so don't rely on smell alone. See your doctor if you suspect either.

Not all changes in urine's odor indicate illness. Certain foods, such as asparagus, and some vitamins and medications can affect the way urine smells. Dehydration can also cause urine to smell especially pungent.

Body odor is as individual as a fingerprint and is determined by our genes and other factors that affect our VOC output. Any change to body odor means a possible change to something in our personal composition, so it's a subtle indicator of when we might want to see a doctor. Who knew there were so many ways to smell bad?

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5/22/2024 4:00:00 AM
Wellness Editor
Written by Wellness Editor
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