Teens and B.O.: What can you do?

"Why do we need B.O.? What is the function of it? Everything in nature has a reason, has a purpose, except B.O. Doesn't make any sense: do something good, hard work, exercise, smell very bad. This is the way the human being is designed. You move, you stink. Why can't our bodies help us? Why can't sweat smell good?" — Jerry Seinfeld

Why do we need B.O.? B.O., a.k.a. bromhidrosis, results from sweating. Sweating is your body’s way of cooling down when overheated.  Although sweating is part of the way the human being is designed, it can be a real pain. Unfortunately, B.O. usually starts becoming a problem during puberty – a time when teens’ bodies are changing and they’re already extremely self-conscious.

Why can’t sweat smell good? The answer lies in the sweat glands. During puberty, the increasing androgen hormones in boys and girls increase the activity of the sweat glands and alter the chemistry of the sweat. When sweat comes in contact with normal skin bacteria, the sweat serves as food for bacteria, and body odor develops. It’s not just the underarms that are the offenders. With puberty, teens start perspiring in places like the scalp, upper thighs, groin, anal area, and even the feet. Who knew that all of these areas had sweat glands?

Before puberty, children can skip a bath for one day and no one has to suffer. Teens, on the other hand, need to have a bath or shower every day. Using soap, they should wash from head to toe concentrating on the face, hands (including under the fingernails), underarms, groin, anal area and feet. They also need to shampoo their hair more often than they used to.

In addition to making body odor worse, poor hygiene may contribute to problems that need medical attention. Poor hygiene can cause skin breakdown so bacteria and viruses can gain access to deeper layers of the skin causing skin infections such as impetigo, boils and abscesses.

Sometimes excess sweating is a symptom of another medical problem requiring a doctor’s care:  

  • Social sweating may occur with social anxiety, social phobias or panic attacks.  Behavioral therapy, antidepressants, and anti-anxiety medications may help. 
  • Hyperhidrosis results in excessive sweating even while someone is just sitting and inactive. Prescription antiperspirants, Botox injections, and sometimes even surgery are treatment options.
  • Cholinergic urticaria happens in people who have an allergic reaction to their own sweat causing hives. Antihistamines or steroids may be prescribed.

Most teens just have old-fashioned B.O. and would benefit from going back to the basics:

Always shower or bathe.

  • Wear clean clothes.
  • Wash sweaty clothes right away.
  • Change bed linen and towels regularly.

Body deodorants work.

  • Use an underarm deodorant.
  • A deodorant that is also an antiperspirant may help diminish sweat.

Cotton is best.

  • Clothes and socks made of natural fibers like cotton vent better and are less likely to retain odors than synthetic (man-made) materials.

The nose knows not. Here’s the problem: humans become accustomed to their own odors, so they may not realize when their smell is less than good. By the time a teen’s doctor may comment on a teen’s body odor, it has already been going on too long.  Other kids may have already noticed and may be avoiding or teasing your child. So parents, help your children learn about good hygiene in their pre-teen years, even before puberty begins.

My advice: You and your child should put your feet up on the coffee table (as long as they don’t smell) and watch a conversation-starting video on body odor.

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